“Whatever you do, don’t tell the judge you love your daughter”
The solo musical is a rather under-used genre, perhaps a sign of how difficult it is to construct a musical monologue. But between them, lyricist Richy Hughes, composer Joseph Finlay and book writer Michael Conley have done a fine job in showing just how revelatory a form it can be with their new musical Superhero, receiving its world premiere in the ever-welcoming arms of the Southwark Playhouse.
Our Clark Kent is Colin Bradley, a stay-at-home father to daughter Emily and a doting husband to Christine. Apart from one drunken night which (rather hilariously) is all the fault of the musical Carousel and it is a night with consequences which prove to be beyond the rescue of mere men, as infidelity leads to separation and worse as Christine decides to move to the USA and Colin realises that only a superhero can save his relationship with his daughter now.
Any familiarity with the campaigning tactics of Fathers For Justice will indicate just what kind of caped crusader we’re talking about here but the beauty of Superhero is that it strips back those attention-grabbing antics to reveal a deeply moving portrait of exactly what it is that drives people to such desperate measures. The weighting of the family court system against fathers is a fearsome thing indeed and in some cases, in this case, painfully unfair.
The format of the show is cleverly conceived – Colin is in the midst of his court appearance to determine custody arrangements and as he talks about the fact that he was the primary care-giver, or that he was the one to move out (a horribly crucial mistake as we discover), the show flashes back to musical snapshots of these slices of life. And Georgia De Grey’s elegant and efficient set design facilitates this beautifully in Adam Lenson’s clear-sighted and compassionate production.
Michael Rouse is superbly well cast as Colin – self-deprecatory at his position as a stay-at-home dad, beautifully adoring of his daughter, but also entirely credible as the increasingly frustrated figure who is more and more isolated from the family life lost to him. The matter-of-factness of court judgements that give one night a fortnight to a previously fully engaged parent, the casual ease with which arrangements are broken and the impact that has on not just the parent but on the grandparents and others who love the child – it’s a world fraught with real pain and Rouse and the writers evoke it beautifully, whilst never undermining the other side of the argument.
Musically, the songwriting is perhaps surprisingly upbeat due to that construction of the show. Deft lyrics whip around the lightly comic numbers about coping with new parenthood (‘Other Children’s Parents’), dealing with the jealousy of alternative father figures (‘All American Dad’), even the difficulties of trying make every moment count when they are so few and far between (‘Another Afternoon With Emily’). And against these lighter moments, the emotional wallop of Colin’s present-day situation hits all the harder, as in the forceful passion of the climactic ‘Don’t Look Down’. A musical good enough to make you wear your underpants on top of your trousers!