Review: The Off Key, White Bear Theatre

A striking new musical that revels in the bittersweet nature of its examination of love, The Off Key hits the right notes at the White Bear Theatre

“I’ve been thinking a lot about narratives lately. And the stories we tell ourselves, y’know? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Anyway. This song is called Are You Leaving Me Or Are You Just Being A C**t?”

Some relationships just f*ck you up. Such is the one between Sam and Olivia that lies at the heart of new musical The Off Key. Friends on the singer-songwriter gig circuit, he’s long been in love with her but can only tell her (inadvertently) through the medium of song, specifically his newest song ‘I Like You, Break Up with Your Boyfriend for Me’. Thus starts an intense affair that is destined to only ever end one way…

Writer and performer Scott Mackie utilises the gig format well to inform his musical, packing worlds of passion and pain not only into the bluntly confessional songs but also into their brief introductions, the gig patter here is some of the most brutally funny I’ve heard in a good while. And as they shag and split, cheat and come back together, the emotional toll of this tumultuous relationship shapes their creative response.

Musically, Mackie runs the gamut of the guitar-based singer-songwriter, from plaintive emo through folk inflections to something angrier and rockier. I particularly loved the influence of The Civil Wars on some of the duet numbers, the combination of Mackie’s voice with Molly Glynn-Whitehead’s sparkling tone as Olivia works so well to explore their differing perspectives on the same situation.

Where The Off Key needs a little more work is dramaturgically. The timeframe of the show is a little murky and initial references to lockdown don’t help. And Mackie suffers a little from Jason-Robert-Brown-in-The-Last-Five-Years-itis in fleshing out his male character more than his female. There’s an extraordinary moment midway through the show in which we learn so much about Sam, and Mackie absolutely nails it, seizing the chance to deepen this man beyond the confines of the central relationship. Olivia is granted no such similar room for development and it would be good to see this balance redressed to fully round out the world of the show, especially given how refreshingly forthright the character is written by Mackie and performed by Glynn-Whitehead.

For it is a world well worth visiting. The Off Key only has a short run in South London right now but I would wager that with just a little tweaking, it could develop into a deservedly successful show. A welcome breath of fresh air in the new British musical theatre scene.   

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
The Off Key is booking at the White Bear Theatre until 10th October

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