Theatre Review: Lift (Soho Theatre, London)

Cynthia Erivo as the ballerina-cum-stripper stuck in a dreary musical...I mean, lift. Photograph: Courtesy of the Soho Theatre.

Cynthia Erivo as the ballerina-cum-stripper stuck in a dreary musical…I mean, lift. Photograph: Courtesy of the Soho Theatre.

Rating: ***

54 seconds. That’s what it takes for the lift at Covent Garden station to rise from platform level to ticket hall. A busker (George Maguire) spends this time imagining interwoven relationships and encounters between the 7 other people who have joined him for his ascent.

Nothing much usually happens during 54 seconds in a lift and unfortunately despite an interesting premise the same applies for the 75 minutes of this new musical by Craig Adams and Ian Watson. The main problem at its core is that the imagination bestowed upon the busker isn’t that imaginative. Far too often it plumps for over-bloated heartbreak and longing assuming everyone in London has overcomplicated and emotionally devastating romantic lives. It’s also full of clumsy parallels between characters and one too many life-coaching clichés and two-bit epiphanies.

From this convoluted and sometimes forced narrative we get a confused structure making it a little difficult at times to understand the ‘how’, but more importantly, ‘why’ behind the interlocking stories, and wonder what Adams and Watson are trying to achieve. Whilst there are genuinely a few amusing moments, these essentially boil down to the usual Londoners’ dig at American tourists, and gags about bumsex – hardly challenging the state of comedy, but I can’t say I didn’t laugh. Furthermore the show climaxes with such a wet and empty resolve that you’re left wondering was there any point in the entire thing to begin with.

Musically, things aren’t much better. Its style is the smudge of every forgettable once-more-with-too-much-feeling mid-1990s to mid-2000s musical between Rent and Spring Awakening, which would have been fine if there was actually variety in the score. Every song sounded the same as the last, apart from one near the beginning about getting a blowjob from a driving instructor, and ‘It’s Been a Year, This Will Take Time’, fantastically sung and performed by Cynthia Erivo delivering one of the very few notable moments of the evening. Even then ‘It’s Been a Year…’ in its premise is like almost everything else sung – a try-hard tear-jerking ballad of how rubbish at love each character is. There were plenty of moments where I simply switched off and busied myself watching how bored one or two of the other actors looked whilst their colleague bellowed a ditty written with so much melodrama and augmented feeling that it makes Penelope Pitstop look avant garde.

But whilst my moans seem bitter and unrelenting, and ultimately I was bored almost the entire way through, it’s not actually as awful a musical as the flaws I pick at. It’s just an extraordinarily mediocre one – genre-dull and far from ground-breaking. In my opinion this is almost as unforgivable as a bad musical, but I can’t deem it so terrible to justify awarding it 2/5 (unlike A Bowl of Cherries, and Burlesque for example). That said there are a few saving graces. Georgia Lowe’s minimalist set of moveable disco-glowing door frames has a sense of stark and determined innovation to it. It’s ingenious yet simple with malleability that really helps keep moving, effortlessly creating the suggestion of rooms and scenery in what could have easily been a very static and visually lacking production. Couple this with director Steven Paling’s urgent sense of energy even though the score drags the action certainly doesn’t and things move between episodes swiftly.

But it’s the entire cast that really deserve the most credit. All of them are fine passionate actors with tremendous singing voices and Paling couldn’t have asked for a better company. It’s just a travesty that they weren’t given a better musical as you get the sense that given decent material they could have been show-stopping. The only minor issue was that if Maguire was more comfortable with singing in the tenor range he’d been given he would have commanded a less strained performance. His songs felt they would have been better for him had they been a tone or two lower. But nonetheless his gallant effort was still a firm and enjoyable delivery, and alongside some very powerful performances from Erivo, Nikki Davis-Jones, and Luke Kempner, a few flat high notes are easily overlooked.

I absolutely admire the Soho Theatre for always taking brave punts on new writing such as this, and it’s very important that they keep doing so. However Lift is middling at best and you’re left with the feeling you probably should have taken the stairs.

Lift plays at the Soho Theatre, London, W1D 3NE until 24 February 2013. Tickets are £15.00 – £29.50 (concessions available). To book visit www.sohotheatre.com.

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3 responses to “Theatre Review: Lift (Soho Theatre, London)

  • Musical Review: Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse, London) | Grumpy Gay Critic

    […] easy to compare the score to Spring Awakening, especially as there have been many poor imitations since. Composers and lyricists Pasek and Paul certainly following suit with writing a score in this very […]

  • Brian Arpel

    I am 73 years of age, and have never, ever ever ever read a critique of any play, musical or any other performance I have attended as I have always preferred to make up my own mind.
    This one I happened upon whilst I was researching Cynthia Erivo.
    What is it about these pompous, pontificating closet want-to be’s that can ‘make or break’ plays etc.
    If this ‘critic’ thought the whole ‘lift thing’ and the performance in general was boring, oh dear, how would one describe his critique except as numbingly, bind-bendingly yawn making!
    Having been involved with matters theatrical for many years I have always believed that those who can, actually perform whilst those who cannot, become critics. How sad that is! Still, I’m pleased that this fellow seems be very satisfied with himself.

  • grumpyyounggay

    Hi Brian,

    I’m incredibly flattered that you think I have the power to “make or break” plays: especially given the rather tiny readership in comparison to publications like The Stage and the Evening Standard, who really do have a lot more clout than small fry like myself. Honestly, to be so revered on such little influence is quite a reassuring indictment of my ability.

    I really hope you haven’t read just my review for the show, because there are plenty others out there: some agreeing with me, and some, like you, coming to a completely different opinion.

    And you know what, that’s actually really great! I think with the advent of the internet, theatrical analysis has become a much more open playing field for which critics, creatives, and theatre goers alike can really have an open and diverse discussion about the medium. I actually love it when another person, be it audience member, reviewer, or someone involved in a production, has a different experience to me, because it makes me think about how I respond to theatre, and challenge myself as someone who openly writes about the arts. But they actually have to offer me a constructive response to actually give me something to think about.

    But at the end of the day, I am only here to offer my own opinion, and heartily encourage anyone who actually cares about the theatre to read others’ as well, and respect my opinion for what it is. Likewise, I always give my fellow critics who come to different opinions of the same show we’ve seen the same respect by saying to them, “Fair enough. But I’d love to know why? Lets grab a drink and have a chat.” Some of my best and enlightening conversations have been with “those who cannot, become critics” people like Matt Wolf at the New York Times, Tom Wicker at Time Out, and Natasha Tripney at Exeunt.

    I never tried to be an actor, and have always loved just watching the theatre, so can’t say that I’m one of those who is doing this because I was unable to succeed. But I like the fact that you’ve assumed I’ve given it a go. Maybe I should; perhaps dying on the boards will really cement my credibility as a reviewer.

    Otherwise, if you have the time, come and enjoy my self-satisfaction (as you yourself says that you’re rather “pleased” with it) and engage with my views over on my new website, http://www.grumpygaycritic.co.uk.

    I’m looking forward to seeing you there, and receiving some nourishing food for thought from you.

    Regards,
    James Waygood

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