Review: The Verb, ‘To Love’, Old Red Lion

“The things we make ourselves believe
The things we make believe we feel”

For the last two years, Aria Entertainment’s From Page 2 Stage season has been a showcase for new musical theatre writing, providing opportunities for shows like The Route To Happiness and The Return of the Soldier and also allowing writers to get feedback on their work. At the first festival in 2013, writer and composer Andy Collyer noted the positive reception one of his songs – ‘Me and my Chlorophytum’ – received and filing that information away, later returned to it to develop a full piece of musical theatre, The Verb, ‘To Love’, directed here by Jonathan O’Boyle.

Taking the form of a song cycle, almost entirely sung-through, Collyer explores the romantic affairs of a 40-something guy called Simon. Reeling from the end of a 23 year relationship, his attention soon lands on a young colleague Ben who is showing a keen interest and we follow them from the heady days of lustful flirtations through changing Facebook statuses, getting a flat and a dog and other such joys of a long-term relationship to the more challenging times of mistrust, selfishness and Facebook stalking.

Collyer’s writing is deliberately universal, taking pains to point out in a programme note that we’re all a “potential Simon or Ben” and it is true – who hasn’t made demands of a partner hoping for their sacrifice, or made such sacrifices hoping they’ll paper over the cracks. There’s amusing diversions through online dating and taking up new hobbies, moving sequences of not knowing how to deal with being alone and crying on the phone, all delivered with unflagging conviction by Martin Neely’s achingly brilliant Simon, blending both emotional frailty and strength through his personal odyssey which sees him not leave the stage once.

Gareth Bretherton does double duty as musical director from the piano – disguised under a romantic tumble of flowers by designer Nik Corrall – and also as Ben, interjecting vocally at key moments in the piece. It’s an intriguing decision from Collyer and one that I’m still pondering – whereas it’s good to get this different voice (and it works extremely well in the telephone conversations they share), at other times it is more awkward as the piano prevents them from sharing the scene effectively. I suspect I’ll need to see the show again to make up my mind and it’ll be no hardship at all to hear them both sing again. 

Musically, the score recalls a hint of Jason Robert Brown’s brand of new musical theatre writing but more impressive is its cohesiveness. Twelve musical numbers are named but the free-flowing nature of the piece means there’s often no pausing for breath, the peaks and troughs of Simon’s journey reflected in a changing musical intent and intensity and one which always remains part of the larger whole. An interesting new musical to be sure and a strikingly mature piece of writing about modern love – gay, straight or otherwise. 

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 23rd May

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