Review: See What I Wanna See, Jermyn Street Theatre

“I only told you the truth…”

After directing its European amateur premiere back in 2006, Adam Lenson now presents the London debut of Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Formally challenging and musically experimental, this modern musical is based on three short stories by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, all circling around the elusive nature of truth and how faith and deception can shift and skew its perspective.

Set in Medieval Japan, the opening tale of Kesa and Morito is split in two, acting as a prologue to both acts as a pair of lovers come to the end of a tumultuous relationship. R Shomon fast-forwards to a film noir version of 1951 New York where a murder has been committed but multiple versions of what happened are muddying the picture. And in Gloryday, a disillusioned priest in 2002 New York sees a hoax snowball way out of his control. 

LaChiusa offers no easy answers – sometimes the big questions just don’t have them – but equally isolates his audience. The deliberately disquieting musical constantly shifts from jazz-like discordance to strident balladry through a whole range of influences which makes it hard to engage with, even as it is well played by the four-strong band with Richard Bates leading from the keys. R Shomon in particular seems more concerned with being densely tricksy than anything else.

By comparison, Gloryday succeeds more in bringing heart to the storytelling, anchored by an excellent performance from Jonathan Butterell as the priest who cynically predicts Christ will rise in Central Park but is thoroughly unprepared for the reaction from people around him, especially in a post 9/11 context. Notions of how we see what we want to see regardless of what is happening echo strongest here – Sarah Ingram’s astute Aunt Monica standing out – but it does feel a long time coming.

Lenson is clearly a fan of LaChiusa’s complexity but this production just doesn’t do enough to engage the attention and effectively tie its constituent parts together – Simon Anthony Wells’ design, handsomely lit by James Smith, unwisely focuses on the Japanese strand of the story to the detriment of the others. That said, the performance level is strong – Cassie Compton and Marc Elliott both shine in their roles – and if LaChiusa is right, what’s wrong for me may very well be right for you.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 3rd October 

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