Review: Syncopation, Bridewell Theatre

Syncopation offers a great chance to see West End stars Devon-Elise Johnson and Jye Frasca up close and personal at the Bridewell Theatre

“We were dancing together without even knowing it”

Tucked down the type of alleyway that Sweeney Todd might well have frequented, the bijou Bridewell Theatre is arguably currently punching above its weight, playing host to a UK premiere of Allan Knee’s Syncopation with a pair of performers with multiple West End credits. Not quite a musical, not quite a dance show, it’s a play with elements of both folded in, a slow-burner trying to meld Strictly with soap.

Opening in 1912 New York, the show tracks the putative dance partnership between meatpacker Henry and seamstress Anna that begins when she answers his ad in the newspaper. He has dreams of dancing for royalty, she’s engaged to be married and painfully shy. As dance slowly brings them together, they begin to be inspired by the new sounds of ragtime, the promise of radical social change and even each other.

Karen Jemison’s production has cast so wisely in Devon-Elise Johnson and Jye Frasca, both triple threats who shimmer in the evocatively designed space (Mayou Trikerioti) when they get to croon era-appropriate standards like ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’ (lovely arrangements and musical direction from the balcony by Fiz Shapur) and when they get to fill the stage with their dancing (choreographer Jenny Thomas excelling whether creating Frasca’s intricate solos or any of the joyful duets).

It thus feels a little counter-intuitive that these moments are few and far between in a two-hander that is two and a half hours long. Knee gives both characters a lot of words but not a huge amount to say as they replay what is essentially the same argument over and over as he complains that she’s not giving enough time and commitment. Even as they both start hanging out with (different) radicals, the format of the show ends up precluding much demonstration of the kind of character growth that would grip us.

Johnson and Frasca both work tirelessly to draw us into the story though, the development of their dance partnership is gorgeous to behold, the joy that dance can bring never grows old. Inevitably, the threat of the Strictly curse looms large (although the stalker-ish sub-plot is one the play could easily jettison with no loss) which feels a touch unimaginative but the charm onstage does its best to win you over. Maybe more of a se-VEN than a ten, it’s still an intermittent real treat for musical theatre and dance fans.

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