John & Jen music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Tom Green. Southwark Playhouse 2, Newington Butts, London to 21 August 2021. 5*****. William Russell.

It is not very often I dish out five stars, and this updated version of a 1995 off Broadway show by Lippa and Greenwald has its faults but Guy Retallack’s production works a treat and Rachel Rucker as Jen and Lewis Corney as John could not be bettered. You know you have seen good theatre when you leave with that feeling in the pit of our stomach as if you had been kicked and I had it for the first time in ages so five stars it is.
Tucker and Corney can sing and act and both defy the problems of pretending to be of an age they are not with consummate ease. At the end the audience was on its feet and for once it was a deserved gesture and not just friends of the cast doing their duty as all too often happens on press nights.
The show originated off Broadway in 1995 and this is an updated and revised cersion which changes the time frame from 1952-90 to 1985-2022 which slightly affects the story as the politics of the day do decide what one of them does, but it does not matter too much as the piece is really about love and obsessive love. Jen has a baby brother John on whom she dotes. There is a suggestion that her father is abusive in the sense he is a bully and he is away from home. As John grows up their relationship gets stronger but while she is estranged from their father he actually admires him and in time signs up to go to war. He is killed in action. The story moves on to what happens next. Jen is a single parent with a child she has called John and she treats him as she did her lost brother. Will he escape or will he become a prisoner? It works quite neatly and Retallack has paced things admirably in an intriguins set which appears to be John’s bedroom full of his toys and souvenirs all used to illustrate the story. It is a neat design although the layout of the theatre does mean some dicey sightlines which prevent seeing one or two crucial moments.The opening moments oddly do not augur well. The band consists of a keyboard, two violins and cello and the opening numbers are more sung speech than ballads with the words drowned by the strings but it does get better and by the time Christmas and whether Santa Claus will come or not is being celebrated all is well. Both players get chances to seize centre stage and deliver a big number full on in each act. It is an evening that belongs to them both however. She develops from bossy sister to possessive mother with skill and he manages to be two different small boys and young men yet making clear that one is replicated in the other. It is a difficult thing to deliver. The show deserves a rather classier stage than Southwark 2 provides but no matter. This is one not to miss if possible. It is heart warming and may well make you cry amid the laughter.

Rachel Tucker: Jen.
John:Lewis Corney.

Director: Guy Retallack.
Musical Supervisor: Michael Bradley.
Musical Director: Chris Ma.
Choreographer/Movement Director: Paul Harris.
Set & Costume Designer: Natalie Johnson.
Lighting Designer: Andrew Exeter.
Sound Designer: Andy Johnson.

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