Déjà vu kicked in as, almost exactly one week to the day after reviewing SUSU Theatre Group’s production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, I was back in the same seat of The Annex Theatre with the same ‘black box’ set and another bed before me, this time to watch SUSU Showstoppers’ production of a brand new, original musical, OAP And Me. Please forgive the somewhat longer than usual review, but I feel that it is warranted for what I believe is the world premiere of this new musical. I admit that I was slightly apprehensive prior to the show, as previous premiere productions from other companies have left me somewhat underwhelmed.
I should not have been concerned: OAP And Me is very well written, very well produced and very well performed! Despite this being its first performance, it feels like a well-established musical but with an exciting freshness – if there was a produced soundtrack, it would be in my collection! From the very first notes and lyrics, the humorous tone is set (ribald and cutting edge, full of double entendres and pastiche) as Jon Pond ruins his parent’s bathroom with a very unfortunate (and, it would appear, recurring) ‘accident’, so heinous a crime in the eyes of his parents that they come up with the ultimate punishment – spending time with his estranged grandparents in their residential care home!
The programme notes claim that Jamie Kimathi Milburn’s OAP And Me is “packed with quirky songs, larger than life characters and charming tongue-in-cheek comedy” and that is certainly true, especially with the calibre of songs such as ‘In The Old People’s Home’* and ‘B-I-N-G-O’* but also in the more reflective songs such as ‘People Get Older’* and ‘James’ Soliloquy’*; what it doesn’t state is just how good the performances are going to be!
John Wilders is outstanding as Jon’s grandfather, James, with exceptionally good comic timing (both verbally and visually), the consistently authentic physicality of an old man and an excellent singing voice, whether in the light-hearted humorous numbers or his provocatively impassioned soliloquy. He is more than matched by Victoria Howard-Andrews as his wife, Brenda, who has a beautifully expressive contralto voice, comic timing that perfectly compliments that of Wilders, excellent characterisation and physicality and who is also a pretty nifty dancer, and makes an enchanting couple with Wilders.
Patrick Riley is totally beguiling as their grandson, Jon, again blessed with a terrific singing voice and the physicality to convince as an awkward 11 year old “on the cusp of manhood”; his reactions on seeing 15 year old Daisy (played by visually expressive Tash Laybourne) for the first time and subsequently are hilarious, while the burgeoning friendship between the two is both credible and endearing.
Oliver Johnson and Sophie Harvey are entirely believable as Jon’s parents, whether joining forces to punish their son or bickering together as only long-married people would do. Johnson has a rich vocal talent and great comic interjections with his long-suffering, wistful and feisty wife. Harvey’s voice has a vulnerable quality but also a steely edge and lovely tone, especially in ‘I Want’*, and is perfect for her character.
Alex Wareham is highly entertaining in the role of Flin, manager of the care home, with an accent most definitely recognisable as West Country, brilliant aptitude for comedy and pathos, and a terrific singing voice.
Although the pace seemed a little hesitant in comparison to Act 1 after the interval (and when the home’s financial difficulties were being explained), it soon picked up again with gusto as James and Darren finally reunite in a confrontational meeting with hilarious and unexpected effect, and on the whole the pace was excellent.
Tiggy Robertson’s direction has ensured fabulous characters and excellent stage business going on with a truly collaborative production, leading roles notwithstanding and with no weak links anywhere. The ensemble members as residents of the care home are collectively wonderful, each with their moments when they shine, with distinctive individual characters playing out their own storylines naturally, maintaining credible physicality throughout and enhancing the residential atmosphere without ever stealing focus, interjecting visually or verbally with brilliant timing.
Overall, the diction is superb and lyrics are clearly heard, which with such witty and pithy lyrics is of paramount importance. The music is also deceptively tricky with difficult intervals and rhythms at times, but the entire cast performed this with skill and panache; their voices collectively are strong, melodious and with great tonal quality. The quintet band, led by Kimathi Milburn, provide a great accompaniment to the singers, but also provide poignant underscores with perfect timing for maximum comic effect – and a lovely little cameo from the violinist, Ed Gill!
The choreography is well designed to suit the characters and is interpreted in that manner – the physical characteristics and natural timings of the residents never falters and makes the dance numbers all the more enjoyable for that fact. There is no better example of this than the way that James and Brenda dance with the frailty and physicality of their old age, other than the time when they reflect on when they first met and fell in love; it is these moments of brilliant attention to the smallest details that make such a big difference and impact.
The small intimate venue doesn’t easily lend itself to extravagant lighting, but the lighting design is thoughtful and well executed, while the few sound effects are brilliantly timed for maximum comic effect.
As I was smiling, laughing and tapping my foot from the very start (even singing the catchy ‘All You Ever Need Is Love’ to myself in the interval), I fully expected to be doing so for the entire show. What I didn’t expect was the powerfully emotive turn of events (I don’t want to say too much as I don’t want to give away spoilers), but this eloquent touching conclusion proves that there is more substance in Kimathi Milburn’s music and lyrics than just a puff-piece of frivolous entertainment and hints of great potential and a very promising future for him in musical theatre should he chose to pursue this.
Maybe this contemporary musical comedy isn’t going to be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but you won’t get many opportunities for a first like this – and I would strongly suggest that you grab this one and enjoy the ride! “It’s his punishment, not mine”, says Darren, but in no way is this a punishment for the audience – it is an unexpected delicious if slightly savoury delight! OAP And Me is being performed at The Annex Theatre until Saturday 18 May 2019.
(* With no song titles in the programme, it is impossible to know if these are the actual song titles – apologies!)