“If everyone’s got a big picture
How come my picture’s something that I still have yet to see?”
I saw Adam Gwon’s 2008 musical Ordinary Days downstairs at the Trafalgar Studios back in 2011 with a grand cast that included Julie Atherton, Alexia Khadime and Daniel Boys and enjoyed it a fair bit, so news of a new production by Streetlights, People! at the transplanted London Theatre Workshop (now in the City) was glad tidings indeed. Directed by Jen Coles on the simplest of sets, decorated with a Manhattan skyline by Samantha Cates, the show’s relatable charms shine through once again.
The four-hander is a deceptively simple show – a quartet of 20-something New Yorkers are spiritually lost, swept up in what should be the romance of the city but finding that adulting isn’t quite as easy as all that. Jason is sacrificing everything for the woman he loves but Claire’s previously broken heart just won’t heal properly; grad student Deb has lost months of valuable thesis research but when struggling artist Warren finds it, she stubbornly resists any attempt at connection that he makes.
So far so rom-com but Gwon’s trick is to spike his narratives with a quirkily idiosyncratic dose of real life. So the meet-cute at the Met is ruined by Deb’s dislike for art galleries and her generally caustic manner, vividly encapsulated in Nora Perone’s delightfully scornful performance. And something more moving thus comes out of the slow-burning friendship that emerges with Neil Cameron’s appealingly nerdish Warren, acknowledging that it can be that much harder to make friends in a city and that it can be worthwhile.
Set against them, Claire and Jason’s relationship drama is a little more bittersweet as doubt creeps into their happiness, Kirby Hughes (so good that she gave me goosebumps within 10 seconds of starting to sing) and Alistair Frederick both sparkling as they each figure out exactly what it is they’re fighting for. Director Coles keeps the action moving pacily around the space, evoking something of the claustrophobic unfriendliness of metropolitan hustle and bustle and musical director Rowland Braché leads intelligently from the piano.
If proof were needed that Gwon is a composer you should reckon with, that legendary supporter of musical theatre old and new Audra McDonald included one of his songs on her album Go Back Home. That song ‘I’ll Be Here’ is an epic story in miniature and Hughes smashes it out of the park here with a beautifully restrained show of real emotion. And if a touch of sentimentality creeps into the final moments, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been earned by this depiction of the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary.