Review: Parade, Southwark Playhouse

“It means the journey ahead might get shorter, I might reach the end of my rope”

Hardly the sunniest of topics for a musical, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is based on the true 1910s story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who is accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 year old employee in his factory. How the trial unfolds in Atlanta, Georgia and its impact ripples out, characterises a Deep South rife with virulent anti-Semitism, whipped up by a sensationalist media and fomented by opportunistic politicians and Leo, with his wife Lucille, are swept along with the inescapable tide. This new production is presented in the Vault at Southwark Playhouse, a dark spare space of shadowy arches and echoing sound.

It is a beautifully complex score – one which would reward repeated listening I imagine – pulling in influences from a diverse range of sources, evoking emotion well but more crucially constantly pushing the story forward. Because if there’s a weakness it is that the central premise is fairly limited, the same points are made repeatedly in lieu of much by the way of actual drama. But directed by Thom Southerland, the show really sparkles when it centres on the marriage between Brooklynite Leo and Southern gal Lucille, his bookish dullness captured well by Alistair Brookshaw and contrasted by the openness of Laura Pitt-Pulford’s stunningly-voiced wife whose relentless drive to clear his name wakens a new, deeper love between the two.

It is interestingly designed by John Risebero, the traverse staging reminiscent of the Menier’s Road Show but Southerland does not really maintain the same level of fluidity to the scenes – everything was always on the move there and constantly using all levels – thus occasionally here there’s awkward pieces of static blocking: it feels rather misjudged to have half your audience watching Leo’s back as he receives his verdict for example. And it always feels like a bit of a shame when small musicals are miked, the acoustics of the space presumably necessitating it here but even so, the sound balance with Michael Bradley’s band wasn’t always quite there.

But for the few limitations, the staging is also brilliantly flexible in evoking a huge range of locations both indoors and out, Howard Hudson’s lighting is exceptional here, and there’s some clever use of the platforms at either end and choreography from Tim Jackson to keep a nifty variation to proceedings, maximising the potential of this space. And the ensemble work well throughout the show, bringing life to a vast range of supporting characters: Mark Inscoe’s oleaginous would-be governor and Samuel J Weir’s clear-voiced soldier standing out, as did Terry Doe, wrapping his gorgeous velvety voice around the most suspicious of characters.

For a venue not well known for its musicals – the huge success that was Company was actually their first ever – Southwark Playhouse have made a strong second foray into the field here with Parade, which should prove a welcome boost to their profile as they battle with Network Rail to secure their future. It is not the easiest of shows to be sure, but one which makes a special kind of theatrical event, challenging preconceptions about what musical theatre can achieve with its focus on the intersection between the everyday and the epic: a couple caught up tragically in major political and cultural change and not a jazz hand in sight.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 17th September
Note: I’d advise trying to sit as central as possible with the traverse stage. But if you have to sit at an end, stick to the one closest to the entrance, furthest from the band.

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