Review: Tasting Notes, Southwark Playhouse

Complex and often satisfying, with a hint of real humour, Tasting Notes proves a quirkily interesting new musical at Southwark Playhouse

“Here’s my mental health crisis, now let me sing you a song”

There’s a moment that comes early on in the first half of Tasting Notes that takes a hard left turn, followed by another disconcerting move which really sets up the show as distinctly not your average musical. Part of the pleasure of the way this new work- directed by Shelley Williams – unfolds is in those surprises so if you’re thinking of booking, I’d bookmark this review and come back later. I’m not going to spoil much but better safe than sorry, eh?!

Richard Baker (music & lyrics) and Charlie Ryall’s (book & lyrics) show unfolds in and around LJ’s, a wine bar with a concept rather than a wine list (the staff bring you what they think you’ll like rather than you choosing…) and for anyone who has ever worked in the hospitality sector, it will resonate hard, particularly for those in customer-facing roles. Over a seemingly unexceptional 24 hours, we follow the lives of the people who work and drink there, cycling through the same period through each of their eyes, revealing the layers upon layers that make up so-called ordinary lives. 

At its best, it is a brilliant device that really shows us how important perspective is, even within the same conversations. A drunk customer thinking he is being charming to the waitress he has just offended, the narcissistic colleague so determined to matchmake that all he hears others say is blah blah blah, the immigrant whose communications are shaped by the limits of her English and the capacity of her heart. The book doesn’t quite stick the landing in terms of building inexorably to a climax (which comes a little too abruptly in the final cycle) but what it does do realise engaging character studies for all its company.

Musically, it also proves to be more fascinating than at first sight, edging almost to chamber opera as unexpected time signatures and phrasing snag the attention. The occasional complexity of the melodies also offers psychological depth – that this may come at the cost of instant hummability is a sacrifice I’m willing to take (it is interesting though to note how the ability to remember one of the tunes is considered a hallmark of success as opposed to the simple act of repetition in the score). And even with that said, the loveliness of duet ‘It Could Be You’ is such that one could easily see it becoming an MT cabaret staple.  

There’s a wonderfully wry, occasionally absurd bent to the humour – musings about ice in Malbev, micropigs, cat morgues and hate for Croydon are still making me chuckle. And this goes a long way to covering some of the longueurs as some of the segments struggle to maintain pacing as they go through each of their beats. Also helping is a highly enthusiastic cast – Ryall is just brilliant as aspiring actress Maggie, pairing beautifully with cat-lover and fellow waiter Oliver in their will-they-won’t-they moments (another aspect so well explored through the different perspectives) and Sam Kipling gives good soprano and short shorts as the self-aborbed but essentially kind George.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Chris Marchant
Tasting Notes is booking at Southwark Playhouse until 27th August

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