John and Jen is an interesting two-character musical. Well performed, with detailed orchestrations of simple songs, a teenage brother and sister go through sibling rivalries and build a bond that protects them from a possibly abusive parent.
Elegantly directed by Guy Retallack, the production plays on a single set by Natalie Johnson, that provides the closets of the two characters. As age and interest in boys eventually take Jen away to college, her brother becomes politicized by the media-driven world. He realizes that fighting for his country is his most important step forward, whilst Jen has learned liberal values at university and doesn’t agree.
There’s a rambling plot that aptly reveals the terrain of growing up when it’s all about baseball one day and boys the next.
This is perhaps the musical’s strength, as it effectively rambles through disappointing holidays, sports addictions, and touching pacts that brothers and sisters make at lightning speed. In the second Act, Jen becomes a Mum in disbelief that her son has grown up so quickly before she got a chance to really know him.
As Jen, Rachel Tucker is a powerhouse singer and actress, mastering the pains of growing up while warmly protecting her 12-year-old brother, a sincere portrayal from Lewis Corney. The harmonies are exceptional, and Tucker and Corney build a believable relationship.
Their portrayals of the range of ages of characters are especially commendable.
Tucker leads with technique as the ‘picaresque’ text demands quick shifts from aspiring athlete to college grunge gal with the broadest of brush strokes. Corney’s diction improves, as the plot requires him to race off to the next generation before scratching the surface of the last one, with impressive honesty and simplicity.
Playing the Southwark Playhouse’s intimate smaller space, Andrew Lippa’s book exhausts and delights. Lyrics about closeness and sibling rivalry are coupled with scorching arias about the management of grief. But musically, the production feels complete as the range of musical styles bring us to such a rich variety of tone and mood shift. Chris Ma and Michael Bradley’s musical direction and supervision are spot on, and the production sound design captures vocal subtlety.
John and Jen are powerfully performed and directed, with an original approach to its music, as all the songs sound individual and specific.
The evening has a raw honesty about it, and the musical staging is subtle and well handled.
John and Jen is a show that will entertain fans of musicals and text-based plays.
Note to vulnerable audience members: Masks suggested. The space is intimate, and the actors and orchestra are close to the audience. The seating is not socially distant, and if you are above 5 foot 10, your knees will rub against the audience member in front of you.
The Southwark Playhouse is a clean, two-theatre venue with a large, airy bar with lots of seating, and the staff are fully masked. Disability accessible.
- Lyrics by Tom Greenwald
- Music by Andrew Lippa
- Director: Guy Retallack
- Book by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
- Photographer: Danny Kaan
- Cast: Rachael Tucker and Lewis Corney
- Southwark Playhouse
- Until: 21 August
- Monday to Saturday - 8pm Matinees Tuesdays & Saturdays at 3.30pm