“Even Floyd knew somethin’ wasn’t right”
I don’t normally read much about shows before I go in especially if they are new to me, as I do like that element of surprise and novelty that is increasingly rare. But had I read that Floyd Collins, just opened at the Southwark Playhouse, was a musical containing a song that Stephen Sondheim wished he had wrote and is routinely described as complex, demanding and jagged, I might have been a little better prepared for it. Tina Landau (book and additional lyrics) and Adam Guettel’s (music and lyrics) musical really is a daring piece of work which challenges and provokes, though in this case ultimately frustrates.
Using the depths of the converted Vault space and a lot of ladders, James Perkins’ design seems ideally suited to recreating 1925 Kentucky and its system of inter-connected caves which our eponymous leading man is famed for exploring. But as he searches for more fame and fortune in new caves, he gets trapped by a rockfall 55 feet under the ground but it is the efforts to try and release him end up and the huge media circus that forms around it that makes up much of the show, exposing the effects on Floyd, his family and those trying to rescue him.
Things started off brightly with ‘The Ballad of Floyd Collins’ (which reminded me if anything of the Ugly Kid Joe song ‘Cats In The Cradle’) which wears its folky Americana influences with a tuneful grace, but as the score progresses it becomes increasingly demanding as it takes unexpected dissonant turns into territory that is more akin to the discordant work of classical composers like Stravinsky and Janáček. Such complexity has won acclaim from the high end – at least one critic has sniffily declared it ‘out of the reach of most people’ – but it is rarely an easy listen, as vocal lines twist and jar and yodel to disconcerting effect, where I’d’ve loved a straighter bluegrass-infused score if I’m honest.
Such an approach would be more acceptable if the book had been stronger, but Landau struggles to make us care about the plight of Collins, who for the most part is stuck under a barely accessible ladder/rock and frequently just left there while the show continues around him (former Jesus and Jersey Boy Glenn Carter even remains there during the interval), and so the focus is thrust onto the supporting characters who haven’t all been fleshed out enough to stand this attention. The recently de-institutionalised Nellie his sister floats around like a spare part, his brother Homer recollects the past and dreams of the future but is given precious little depth, his parents are barely ciphers.
The saving grace comes with the character of Skeets, the slight reporter who can squeeze through to see Floyd and thus get his story out to the wider world. Played by Ryan Sampson (so very excellent in The Kitchen Sink last year), there’s a real sense of the man who has been utterly changed by events as his journalistic subject becomes someone he cares for and gets really involved with as the prospects for rescue fade away. Sampson sings well but has such an open expressiveness that it is his acting which is the most compelling.
But one song and one character cannot make you like a show. As the show failed to engage me, my attention turned to the little details – the constantly shifting tone, the variable Kentucky accents, the lack of lyrical clarity, the flatness of the narrative which fails to build to any sort of climax. So not one for me, though the challenges of Floyd Collins are clearly appreciated elsewhere.