I’d forgotten just how tedious the first act of Floyd Collins actually is. That’s not to say that this is a bad production. Far from it. Jonathan Butterell makes a very sound fist of directing his talented cast. The nine-piece band sound fine squirreled away somewhere up on the balcony of Wilton’s Music Hall, and the scaffolding set is a perfectly adequate way of circumventing the problem of how you portray what is, essentially, a hole in the ground.
However, like I said. Tedious. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
Floyd Collins is a musical by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau which opened off-Broadway in 1996, and has since played worldwide. Set in Kentucky in the spring of 1925 its blue-grass-influenced score tells the story of our eponymous hero, the son of a local farmer, who has already discovered, in 1917, a subterranean cave – ‘Crystal Cave’ – on his parents’ remote farm from which they derive some small income. In his search for a bigger and better cave be becomes trapped by a rock fall which pins his legs. The human interest story of a man incarcerated underground attracts a media circus, becoming a coast-to-coast newspaper and pan-US radio sensation.
So, what makes people not want to come back and see Act Two? (and in both productions I’ve seen there have been a noticeable number of empty chairs following the interval…). I think it’s simply that the first twenty minutes of the show doesn’t function properly dramatically as a musical, and it’s a mystery why the writers haven’t fixed the problem in the twenty-odd years since the show first saw the light of day.
We learn up front that Floyd (Ashley Robinson, who has the patience of a saint as he has to spend most of the show rooted to the spot – Floyd has to be one of the most passive leading roles ever written) wants to discover another cave, having discovered ‘Crystal Cave’ in 1917. He heads underground, finds one, and gets trapped on the way back up.
Why should we care? The answer is, sadly, that we don’t. It feels as if there’s a scene missing at the top of the show where we should see Floyd with his family to set up the world he inhabits, his relationships, and what makes him tick. What we get after a short introduction where the cast act as a Greek chorus introducing our hero is a song sung by Floyd. Then another. Then another. And Mr Guettel’s songs do tend to venture towards the self-indulgent…so without the initial set-up we’re asked to invest our emotional capital in some schmuck who likes going pot-holing and hogs stage time. Much though Ashley Robinson is a charismatic and likeable actor, the mountain in front of him is just too steep, and I tell you, the one hour twenty five minutes of Act One feels an awful lot longer if you’re not actually invested in the lead character.
Act Two is like a completely different show. Act Two’s where the plot is. The story starts to be one of conflict and the creation of the US’s first ‘media circus’. The newspaper and radio men vie with each other to get the most up to date information for their readers and listeners. The rescue effort promises a lot but doesn’t deliver, and the family turn in on themselves feeling impotent in the face of the impending demise of their beloved son.
Spending the second act in the bar you’d also have missed Rebecca Trehearn’s beautifully rendered big number as Nellie, Floyd’s sister. Powerful stuff. As I said this is a strong cast.
But strong cast or not, the object of Act One, as someone wag once opined, is to tell the story sufficiently well that the audience want to come back for Act Two. And on Friday there were more than a few who didn’t…