Review: Ordinary Days – ‘brings the score to life in quite an extraordinary way’

A rom-com premise gives way to a brilliant musical at the BT, with endearing and relatable performances.

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Two people stand on a box with two people either side, all of them are singing
Photographer: Francesca Duke

When I first read the premise of Ordinary Days, a song-cycle composed by Adam Dwon, I found myself a little uninspired.  The musical of nineteen songs follows four characters who try to negotiate their way through New York, building meaningful connections along the way – their ‘ordinary lives’ can interweave in unexpected ways.  This storyline seemed all too familiar.  However, upon viewing it at the BT, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how refreshing and relatable this jazz and Bernstein-esque style musical is.  Although the plot of the play may seem ‘ordinary’, the cast – through the direction of Mackay-Champion – bring Gwon’s score to life in quite an extraordinary way. 

This is a play which requires a strong group of actors in order to convey its multi-faceted characters and we need look no further than in this cast composed of Ruby Nicholson, Máth Roberts, Fifi Zanabi and JJ Gibbs.  The play opens with an injection of energy when Roberts, as Warren, bursts onto the scene and immediately grabs the audience’s attention.  Warren’s costume works well to enhance Roberts’ superb acting of the youthful, naive and enthusiastic Warren, as he wears a rucksack and Converse shoes.  We are attracted to his full-hearted personality but also worry for him in such an unforgiving city. 

Enter Deb.  Nicholson has a gift of a part in the spunky, sarcastic cynic Deb but she more than fulfils expectations and her comic timing is perfect.   Deb’s solo number ‘Dear Professor Thompson’ sticks in the memory and the panic-email to a tutor when handing in an essay late is certainly relatable for the average Oxford student.   The ending of the email to her professor with “Love, smiley face” is sure to get a laugh from the audience, as well as the comedic typing on her laptop to the rhythm of the music. 

The friendship that develops between Warren and Deb creates an interesting dynamic.  It is amusing to watch these apparent polar opposites initially interact in the song ‘Sort-of Fairy Tale’, with Roberts’ energy well portrayed in his grand movements across the stage, while Nicholson shoots him down and moves away on the beat.  Their growing friendship in the latter part of the play is endearing, as the characters’ various vulnerabilities are exposed in the solos ‘Calm’ and ‘Life Story (Reprise)’.  Roberts and Nicholson demonstrate their versatility as actors as they convey that there is more to the naive Warren and standoffish Deb than meets the eye, singing in brilliant fashion. 

Special mention must also go to Gibbs as Jason who really comes into his own in his solos, a highlight being ‘Favourite Places’ which demonstrates his impressive vocal range.  Gibbs plays the romantic who can sense a distance between himself and his girlfriend Claire, tenderly lamenting in his solo that he hasn’t “found a way inside her heart”.  The duets between Gibbs as Jason and Zanabi as Claire come across as honest and relatable with the bickering of ‘I’m Trying’ and ‘Fine’ exhibiting well the everyday struggles of relationships.

The highlight of the show, however, has to be Zanabi’s rendition of ‘I’ll Be Here’, which adds a new dynamic of poignancy to the witty musical.  I saw at least four audience members tearing up as we discover the real motivation behind Claire’s distance from Jason.  The song was exquisitely sung and the staging – as directed by Appin Mackay-Champion and Mimi Pattinson – was emotionally wrought, with Zanabi standing in the spotlight with Gibbs watching on from a distance in the darkness. 

Mackay-Champion and Pattinson deserve great credit for their tight choreography and scene transitions.  The beginning of the play revolves around solos followed by blackouts, but as the characters become more interconnected so do the scene transitions.  It suffices to say that Emma Wood’s work on the piano is an impressive feat as she plays right from the moment of the audience’s arrival to the end applause with perfect flair, managing to capture the varying moods of the songs well. 

All in all, this is a very clever production, which cleverly balances humour with insecurity and tragedy as these endearing characters seek connections. The laugher and tears present on the night I saw it seem to say one thing: the whole team must be doing something special.

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