Squatting beneath a railway arch, and with a nice little café at the front, the Union Theatre is a quaint and friendly venue for an enjoyably quirky production. Situated just a stone’s throw from Southwark underground station on the Jubilee Line, the theatre can easily be reached by lovers of musicals more in the Sondheim than the Lerner & Loewe mould.
On offer is a portmanteau work, in which one, two or three people, all of whom may have some claim to be oddballs, fetch up in different parts of the USA for wholly unconnected reasons. In the first of these scenarios, an impulsive truck driver picks up a disgruntled waitress at a roadside diner and whisks her of to see Rock City, a destination which lives up to its name more literally then they expected. In the second, an obsessive nerd whose girlfriend has given up on him tracks down a UFO in a field. In the third, a dutiful grand-daughter who has foregone marriage in order to look after her ailing ‘Grampy’ meets a potential suitor while wheeling Grampy on a sentimental journey. In the fourth scenario, three sisters are intending ceremoniously to deposit their father’s ashes in a mighty river. In the fifth, two schoolboys from Brooklyn are playing truant on Coney Island, while in the last a bride whose wedding is being celebrated at Niagara Falls sneaks out of the church and goes off on a risky outing with a tour guide.
Apart from their oddity, these scenarios lack any obvious connecting theme, although the tour guide – who comes into his own at the end as a full-throated songster – hovers in the background throughout in various guises. While each scenario must therefore be judged on its own merit, the songs are generally good, and are well-sung by the cast, ably accompanied by a four-piece band in the intimate setting of the small auditorium. Particularly effective, however, was the unaccompanied singing in harmony by the three sisters of a nursery rhyme, Three Fair Queens.
But the outstanding scenario has to be the odyssey of the two errant high school boys, one nasty, one quite nice, as they trade insults, swap punches, get scared, and feel the stirrings of homosexual love. Richard Dawes, playing the nasty one, puts in a particularly memorable performance. With minimal props, the rest of the cast manage to create a realistically scary ‘Spook House’ among the fairground attractions of Coney Island, making this the highlight of the show.
A rousing finale, in which the entire cast come together in song, brings to an impressive end a musical which is more of a curiosity than a classic, well performed but less perhaps than the sum of its parts. Well worth a trip on the Jubilee Line, though.