“Could you ever be happy mama?”
In a musical theatre landscape that often seems risk-averse when it comes to new writing, even in the face of the recent efforts of old hands Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice both closing early, it is always pleasing to hear new voices being championed. And that is exactly what producer Neil Marcus did in securing idiosyncratic British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert to write the music and lyrics for The A-Z of Mrs P, along with Diane Samuels for the book. The show recently premiered at the Southwark Playhouse in a production directed by Sam Buntrock, and the soundtrack has now been released by SimG Productions.
Herbert had never seen a musical before starting to write this show five years ago and there’s a definite freshness to the way she has approached the material. The show was inspired by the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, a woman who led a complex personal life but is best known for mapping and creating the famous A-Z streetmap of London that so many still use today. Her relationship with her map publisher father was a troubled beast though and so the canvas of the story widens out beyond the streets of London, to delve into the family history of Mrs P and how it proved a driving force for her whole life.
With a huge amount of source material to hand, the temptation to fit as much of it in as possible in one that Samuels and Herbert didn’t manage to resist, and the result is something of a flawed piece. The bright beginnings effectively set up this fascinating premise of this woman leaving her husband in 1936 and ending up creating something so endurably iconic – early songs like ‘Best Foot Forward’ and ‘Lovely London Town’ possess a quirky adorable quality that Isy Suttie delivers excellently as Mrs P, a real sense of character coming through the intricate wordplay and original melodies.
The focus of the show does turn away from her though, to settle on her parents’ marriage and their own careers, which removes some of the fascinating texture from the music. Michael Matus and Frances Ruffelle are both strong performers, his domineering nature and her alcoholic tendencies clear to see but musically, their songs don’t feel quite as uniquely interesting as Mrs P’s voice. ‘Can You Hear Me, Mama?’, a duet between Suttie’s Mrs P and Stuart Matthew Price as her brother is a stirring number late on though. And the inclusion of ‘Nothing Much To Say’, a song cut from the show and performed by Herbert is a nice addition.
Overall, the soundtrack marks a notable entry into the world of musical theatre for Herbert, in capturing much of what makes the show work so well. The marriage of her own character-based, folk-infused style with a Sondheim-like approach to melody is one I’d love to see develop and if it may not always live up to the early promise of its imagination, the constant evolution of many of a musical suggests that something even better could yet emerge in any future life the show might have.