Bulmershe Theatre, Minghella Studios, University of Reading
Tour to Edinburgh Fringe Festival – Venue 36 – The Space on North Bridge – Perth Theatre 13-16 August
A Romantic’s Guide to the Apocalypse by Huw Smallwood
50 minutes – no interval
Edinburgh Fringe Box Office – 0131 326 0000
Cormac Richards – 18 July 2018
Where does one start to create a piece of art? Throw around ideas with friends? Maybe. Do all the creation oneself? In this case, both are true.
I first came across Reading University Drama Society (RUDS) earlier this year when I saw their knock-out production of the musical, ‘Spring Awakening’; returning to see a home-grown work, destined for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was going to be an exciting prospect.
Four characters in a basic costume – including red dungarees – discuss how they can come up with a story of significance, funny, moving and sad. They start their tale in 1918 when astronomer, Sir Bertie Venus, tracks the path of a meteor which he declares will hit Earth in 100 years. He commits the details of the devastating prediction in a letter. Fast forward to 1918 where we find cereal-eating Jack living a normal life, dealing with his artist Mother and going on dates….. or not. When he misses a meet with a girl at a restaurant his path crosses with one of the waitresses and they come into the possession of the 100 year-old letter. What do they do? Who do they tell?….. As the news spreads so they try and deal with the future and fall in love along the way. So, time grows shorter, until the last day arrives.
The premise is clever and works really well. Huw Smallwood who has written and directed the show has created a witty script with some excellent 2018 reference points and a musical score which grows emotionally throughout. Political faffing, cults and lazy news reporting all come in for hilarious treatment which throws into relief the sense of warmth and tenderness of the whole.
The music – all keyboard – is a combination of the quirky and the deeply melancholic and moving. The performers are not all the greatest singers in the world, but they can put over a tune and in the context of the piece that is absolutely fine. The lovely harmonies and multi-layered songs are perfectly done and show an excellent level of musical sophistication.
Simple additions to costumes and a few props are all that are needed and mean that the tiny stage area in the Bulmershe Theatre at the Minghella Studios (in this case a replica of the area available for the Edinburgh performances) are very skilfully used and the use of two suitcases in one song was a meticulous piece of stagecraft.
As the young couple, Jack and Zoe; Ben Carter gives a lovely, under-stated and wide-eyed performance, instantly likeable and easy to engage with, while Catherine Lane provides an excellent strong-willed characterisation, they both sing well.
The four narrators play multiple characters which give them a chance to expose their versatility. Melis Blackwood is very funny as the pseudo Theresa May and delivers a wonderful song about missing out on love. Erin Kavanagh shines as Joe’s Mum and her singing of the deeply emotional song about the memories we leave behind is stunning. Teddy Turpin zips between characters, and his blustering Home Secretary is a delight. Patrick O’Callaghan is an incredibly physical actor and his range of gurning and dance moves is amazing – a tremendous performance.
The story is set out, performed and comes full-circle within the 50 minutes and in that time you grow to love the characters and feel for them facing their last day on earth. It is when that day is fast arriving that from almost nowhere an emotional punch is felt and I don’t mind saying that it brought tears to my eyes. Jack and Zoe prepare for the end by writing their own letter, addressing it to any Romantics who survive the impending disaster. It is a neat and tender ending.
Technical back up is provided by; Jess Martin as the Musical Director who has drilled the cast very effectively; Producers Riddell Erridge and Amy Hubbard and Technical Consultants Izzie Sheldon and Jenny Sanders have all made an excellent contribution to this show.
As I was watching, I found myself reminded of ‘Godspell’ – the bunch of disparate characters, lively and having fun, and brought together by one momentous event which is charged with emotion. Huw Smallwood has created a real treasure, both in the writing and the inventive and insightful direction; he has been well served by the whole Company. It is worth noting that these are not all theatre students, they are just a group who like making theatre. And how well they do it.
Edinburgh is in for a treat. A Romantic’s Guide to the Apocalypse is a thoughtful, fun, well-rounded and deeply moving gem of a show.
Melisa Blackford – Ensemble/Narrator 3/Prime Minister/Debora/Girl
Ben Carter – Jack
Erin Kavanagh – Ensembe/Narrator 1/Mum/Minister for Science/Correspondent/Delilah
Catherine Lane – Zoe
Patrick O’Callaghan – Ensemble/Narrator 2/Restaurant Owner/News Anchor/Derek
Teddy Turpin – Ensemble/Narrator 4/Bertie Venus/Home Secretary/Dave
Written & Directed by Huw Smallwood
Musical Director – Jess Martin
Producer – Riddell Erridge
Producer – Amy Hubbard
Technical Consultant – Izzie Sheldon
Technical Consultant – Jenny Sanders