There’s an awful lot to like about The A to Z of Mrs P, the new musical with book by Diane Samuels, and music and lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, which has just opened at The Southwark Playhouse.
The show tells the story of Phyllis Pearsall, who followed in her fathers’ cartographic footsteps by – according to her own, possibly embellished account – tramping the streets of London meticulously seeking out each Road, Lane, Street, Square, and Avenue in order to create the London A to Z Map with which we’re all so familiar.
There was for me, however, one very major problem, more of which later.
The positives first. Gwyneth Herbert’s music is likeable, and doesn’t sound forced. Her song ‘Lovely London Town’ which won the Stiles and Drewe prize for best new song in 2010 is nicely tailored into the fabric of the show, and was deserving of the prize. In addition, ‘Best Foot Forward’ is a memorable top and tail-er to the show, and the Act Two ‘I’m not a callous man’ shows a commendable breadth of emotion.
Sam Buntrock’s direction, along with Nick Winston’s musical staging are seamless, and the show has a fluidity rarely seen, helped in no small part by the sparceness of the set; a door here, a couple of chairs, some boxes; though designer Klara Zieglerova has, overhanging the entire traverse playing area, a grid hung with houses, furniture, suitcases, keys and a hundred other objects which means the set doesn’t feel empty, even though there are times when there’s nothing at ground level.
Isy Suttie as Phyllis Pearsall equits herself well, given what’s written. Stuart Matthew Price as Phyllis’s brother, Tony, likewise turns in a performance up to the writing, and Frances Rufelle as Phyllis’s mother, Bella, runs the full gamut of emotion from love struck fifteen-year-old to drink and drug addled middle aged loon. The stage is never anyone other than Michael Matus’ though, when he is on as Phyllis’s father, Sandor Gross, and that is actually part of the problem. Sandor Gross, as a character, is infinitely more interesting that Phyllis Pearsall, and whenever he’s on stage that’s where our attention is drawn.
As I said, there is one very major problem with this show, and as is so often the case, it rests with the book. Samuels has effectively written a biographical play about the life of Phyllis Pearsall. As people very rarely live lives with a satisfying dramatic arc, the show suffers from being merely a sequence of events.
Even more than that, she plays fast and loose with the time lines hopping backwards and forwards between the past and the present, as she would in a play, and that to a large extent is what the principal problem is with this show. Storytelling in a musical is very different to storytelling in a straight play.
The three questions I keep banging on about in terms of musical theatre, Whose story is it? What do they want? What’s stopping them from getting it? don’t form part of the structure of the show, and as a result I really couldn’t have cared less about any of the characters. No, that’s not true. Phyllis’s father. I cared about him. The fact that he was given what was, in effect, the ‘eleven o’clock number’, the Act Two ‘I’m not a callous man’ only added to the confusion. In addition, the character of Phyllis was almost completely passive. It’s her father who asks her to create the map. It’s her father who sets up the company. It’s her father who rents an office.
In a musical, it all begins with the book, and I’m afraid that in this case, that’s where it’s let down.