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Southwark Playhouse            

The Lion
5.0Reviewer's rating

If you are seeking something different from the razzmatazz and glitz of the Platinum Jubilee then this charming, understated, but the richly rewarding one-man show may well be for you. Opening at the Southwark Playhouse and then going on tour, Max-Alexander Taylor takes on the autobiographical musical by Benjamin Scheuer, which first appeared in 2014. It is a tale of self-discovery through pain and loss, hardly unfamiliar territory but told here with unaffected directness, gentle, wry humour, and a sequence of memorable songs, mostly in the folk idiom, which begins where words are no longer sufficient – as all the good musicals should.

Even more, than is usual in a solo show most things rest on the shoulders of the performer and Alexander-Taylor truly rises to this challenge, whether by chatting to the audience members beforehand to break down the fourth wall, drawing us into Ben’s story to make it his own, finding comedy and pathos in the script, or singing and playing one well-contrasted number after another. He is assisted by a finely graded lighting scheme, courtesy of Emma Chapman, but otherwise, he is reliant on an impressive selection of five guitars (four acoustic and one electric) displayed at the back of the raised platform, and a few props – nothing more.

It might seem disconcerting to hear him talk in an English rather than American accent, but this is in line with Scheuer’s mixed transatlantic heritage and soon ceases to matter. It is also a tribute to the quality of the writing which manages to be truly universal in its ambition and reach. The opening section is a fine exposition of a parent-teenager relationship, as Ben’s father first nurtures his musicianship and then becomes critical. His father’s sudden and early death during this period of alienation is something that hangs over the whole show as a shadow Ben has to escape. His strategies for doing so are presented with humour and hard-won self-knowledge burnished with some fine turns of phrase and accomplished melodies. There is also plausible anger mediated through electric guitar riffs that keeps any potential sentimentality at bay.

While Ben is the central character, the script and music also introduce us effectively to his family and to a key girlfriend, who get their own voices and angles in the story. This again is a tribute to the descriptive and evocative quality of the writing and the plausible urgency with which Alexander-Taylor puts it across. This comes to a peak in the last twenty minutes or so which describes Ben’s encounter with life-threatening cancer. This captures remarkably the fear of death, the physical impact and sheer weariness associated with chemotherapy, and the elation and joy of release from a likely death sentence. Rarely have I witnessed the roller-coaster of emotions associated with a cancer diagnosis depicted so affectingly and directly. This is a captivating artistic achievement.

When Max takes his shoes and socks off near the end you feel that this is a symbol of how much of the character he has exposed to us and how closely he has drawn us into his raw musical and emotional world. Seventy-five minutes fly by, and we really do feel we have glimpsed ‘a world in a grain of sand’. This show leaves you feeling good about life and its possibilities because it has earned that right through memorable confrontations with challenges. It is a message and a reminder that we need in our current times: for that and so many other reasons this show deserves to travel and succeed.

  • Musical
  • Music, Book & Lyrics: Benjamin Scheuer
  • Directors: Alex Stenhouse & Sean Daniels
  • Leading Performer: Max-Alexander Taylor
  • Southwark Playhouse            
  • Until 25 June, 2022
  • At 8 pm. Running time: 75 mins, no interval

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