“Go on, do it…”
There’s a sense of budding potential in new musical The A-Z of Mrs P that doesn’t quite come to full fruition in this production at the Southwark Playhouse, but suggests that some assiduous rethinking and re-shaping could well see any future life be more bountiful. Diane Samuels’ book and Gwyneth Herbert’s music and lyrics tell a self-described “musical fable” inspired by the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman who mapped out and created the A-Z Atlas to London.
But though this may be her main claim to fame, the rest of her life was full of additional drama too. A Hungarian map-drawing father and an Irish mother who ultimately died in an asylum, her parents had a troubled marriage which impacted hugely on her and her brother’s childhood and beyond, and her lovelife was marked by failures and an abortive marriage. All of this and more is packed into the show which strains under the pressure of delivering any of its narrative streams effectively.
The process of mapping the streets of London, inspired by her getting lost on the way to a dinner party, is fascinatingly done in Sam Buntrock’s production and matched with some of Herbert’s best work here, lyrical invention and jagged musical phrasing creating real interest. But the use of flashbacks to dip into Mrs P’s childhood, and to give flashes of her parents’ own careers and lives saps the show of its momentum as they steadily become the focus at the expense of the title character.
Fortunately, they are performed compellingly by the reliably experienced hands of Michael Matus and Frances Ruffelle who draw these characters vividly, as does Stuart Matthew Price as brother Tony (the duet he and his sister share ‘Can You Hear Me, Mama?’ is just lovely). Peep Show’s Isy Suttie is an interesting choice for Mrs P by comparison – she captures her quirky, almost gauche nature in the first half just right, but feels out of her depth in the later emotional turmoil.
So there’s one half of an excellent show here. Singer-songwriter Herbert’s score like a little collection of Sondheim-inspired, beautifully observed miniatures (that will surely reward re-listens), a hard-working company, a glorious band under Steve Ridley’s musical direction and an ingenious design from Klara Zieglerova. The second half though loses its way terribly and not even the best A-Z can help it without some serious work.