The musical Smart Casual centres on a London flat, three meet-ups, and a group of friends fresh out of university: Mel, Marc, Willow, Lily, Ben, and Jordan. Together in the apartment where they got together, broke up, and made up, each of them gets caught up by frustrations typical of one’s early 20s: Ben wants to settle down into married life but discovers neither himself nor his partner, Willow, are as certain as he thinks; Lily wants only to not be boring, to not be business-like, to not be making the world shittier, yet struggles to positively want anything; and Mel knows her rent will be paid by her parents but she cannot get the one job at Vogue she wants. These characters, and their performers, feel to me like the main reason for the success of the work. Their personalities are clear-cut and well-conceived, often fitting an archetype without losing their own opinions and motivations. This frankness then lets the play focus on their interactions between them.
Most songs have two, three, or four voices singing against or with one another and they keep a conversational tone outside of the chorus or solos, thus making each song an evolving dialogue. This style is effective in continuing interactions into the songs, but at times the balance in volume between band and co-singers make the words hard to follow. But this is far from enough to get in the way of appreciating the great vocals or understanding the character development. Ultimately, however, the play is not bound to these characters and their frustrations. It is bound to the apartment. So, when Mel moves out, the play can end leaving the characters with only directions and possibilities rather than closure. Even the ‘always better for the experience’ refrain of the final song feels like an optimistic perspective rather than an objective point. As a 21-year-old myself, that felt fitting.
A special highlight of this production is the skillful incorporation of class and sexuality into the narrative. There isn’t any one way to use such important concepts in art, but I really like it when the social gives everything a slightly tragic air without reducing the characters to stand-ins. When the friends assume that Mel is doing great in London, that she will play host, and always hear their troubles, it is somewhat because she’s the rich one with ‘rents ready to cover an apartment’, but it’s also because she hides her feelings and shies from open conflict. Or when Ben spends a year never really falling in love with Marc, it must be something to do with Marc’s flawed character and defensiveness, but it’s also the naggingly familiar story of a bi-curious man who can’t think of a male as that family-starter, life-partner he grew up expecting.
Coming back to the music though, the writer, Sam Woof, claimed that Smart Casual aspires to depart from some of the ‘farce and melodrama’ that typifies most musical theatre. This is well put, and that intent is delivered upon. Obvious moves like the conversational tone, or the general lack of movement and dancing, keep the songs grounded in the apartment conversations of the group. And none of those songs are wasted. Even a comic relief song by Marc, the camp queen of the group, works as defensive posturing that his character would struggle to overcome.
However, one might ask, why bother to undo the melodrama and unreal extravagance of the musical? The form will just work against you. Nearly all musicals will dedicate 3-5 minutes of sweeping soundtracks to a singular character point or emotion, often with recurring lines. It is not impossible, but perhaps unavoidable, that the songs will drift towards the edifying and melodramatic. But what melodrama there’s left in Smart Casual, I find it is put to good use. After all, I can think of no better way of summing up the giddy feeling of knowing you are meant to be living the most ‘formative’ and ‘pivotal’ years of your life than having each life event or strong emotion affirmed in song – the most obvious extent of this being the repeated line ‘this is actually happening’. Moreover, the edification works perfectly with the self-delusion of many of the characters. Mel sings about hating her friend’s callousness in the evening and then erases that with a song about always loving them in the morning. And in that moment, you feel the affirmative background of the score is as much for the audience as for her. So, where the show delivers on giving musicals a bit more ‘real life,’ it doesn’t leave you wishing they had just made a play.
For a student work the topics discussed are close to home. It’s why the promise of a grounded and tender depiction of undeniably important years works so well. The piece made me feel like that time could be a bit more real, and so a bit more manageable. Overall, seeing Smart Casual at the North Wall was a lovely experience and I look forward to more great work from GOYA in future.
Image Credit: GOYA Theatre