According to Andrew Lloyd Webber, musical theatre is losing its momentum in the UK, but STOP could just be about to buck that trend. The recently-graduated duo of Annabel Mutale Reed (book and lyrics) and Leo Munby (music) has found an impressive sweet spot by writing a concept musical that deals with one of the most pressing and universal issues of our time: a crisis of mental illness.
Waiting together at a magical bus stop, a lawyer, personal trainer, dancer, and student are forced to stop and face their internal battles. Their circumstantial relationships tease out each unique story through a series of monologues and musical numbers that are sensitively performed by an ensemble of just four actors. The unashamedly British wit of the script lures audiences into a false comfort which is then thwarted by a powerfully emotional final quarter.
Although sometimes lacking in sustained physical characterisation, all the actors give competent individual performances, as well as pulling together for exquisitely harmonised group numbers. Martha, a black lawyer played by Mutale Reed, is perhaps the most complex character of all. Her struggle to come to terms with her husband’s depression, her pregnancy, her alcoholism, and everyday racism culminates in a truly heart-wrenching performance of You Matter Today. The song verges on breaking the fourth wall by offering a message of hope and encouragement, however the show’s direction and writing evades over-egging the sentiment by maintaining an entirely naturalistic portrayal of a mother empowering her child. Poignant moments like this are plentiful in every character.
Credit must also go to Gemma Lowcock, the only non-original cast member, who stepped into the role of Chloe with marked ease. In the new version, Lowcock not only conveys Chloe’s bipolar type two more clearly and sensitively, but exploits Munby and Reed’s intelligent structure. Chloe, with her colour-coded revision cards, glues the hard-hitting stories together through endearing friendliness and unassuming humour, all while exhibiting the versatility of Munby’s incredible, infectious score.
Advice, however, from an out-of-date composer whose ego could fill all 1,200 pages of Les Miserables should be consumed with caution; Claude-Michel Schönberg, with whom the show has been workshopped, has done the show few favours since January. If this was a plot-driven, lengthy epic I could understand why Munby would use a recitative “inspired by the theatrical language of Les Mis and Miss Saigon”, but the additional underscore in the first half and the recitative were ill-fitted to the subtlety of the script, and became tiresome by the end. In what is also quite static staging, the underscore distracts from the compelling story-telling of the script. I can’t help feeling the show could be even better if Munby and Reed stuck to their original instincts and trusted their remarkable talent.
The production also needs ironing out, with unnatural direction of movement and incomplete sound design (a soundscape, for example, would really enhance the setting), but this was likely down to unfamiliarity with the space. The simplicity should nonetheless be commended. A minimalist set and production assures that the characters and their stories remain at the forefront. And that is really where this production excels; STOP is a show that creates conversation and reinstates stories as the currency of human exchange. “Excellence isn’t a duty”, but boy, STOP deserves an award for excellence in story-telling.
STOP, Venue 58, until 28 August.