Teenager Bernie has been admitted to a secure hospital after trying to commit suicide. In the next room, former rent boy David thinks he’s a werewolf. Initially, the pair take out their pain on each other, but their abusive relationship gradually becomes one of trust, of friendship and love.
Crafting a musical around such dark material (originally a play by Canadian author Brad Fraser) means that there’s no danger of this work, by Russell Labey and Leon Parris, being mistaken for the usual frivolity one associates with the genre. And it’s just as well: there are none of your typical ‘show tunes’ here, no breakout eleven o’clock number that stays with you on the journey home.
Instead, we get an intense and claustrophobic tale, with an atmosphere helped by the diminutive size of the Trafalgar Studios 2 space. As the teenage patients, Gregg Lowe and Paul Holowaty spark off each other with such energy that, at times, it feels almost voyeuristic to be in their company.
As Bernie’s older brother, Christian, Daniel Boys is light years away from the adolescent sauciness of Avenue Q. Given perhaps the hardest role of the four cast members, not least because nearly all his musical numbers consist of singing to an unseen doctor, or to his unresponsive brother, he goes some way to showing that he’s capable of more than the usual ‘musical theatre leading man’ template provides.
The musical numbers were spoilt slightly on the night we attended by a lack of balance between the haunting pre-recorded backing tracks and the amplification of the live vocals. At one point, too, Holowaty lost both the tune and the tempo of one of his key solos. Given the discordant, disconnected nature of both play and music, such a slip didn’t feel as out of place as it would have done in any other production, but it was still the weakest point of the night.
As a fourth character, former Hollyoaks actress Emma Rigby’s nurse is an odd one. The only one of the four cast members to not sing, her character instead provides comic relief, often acting in ways that no nurse would ever do. But she shows a fine sense of comic timing, and a knack for finding just the right emotional pitch in a line to either underline or undercut a scene. In her first stage role, Rigby shows that she is capable of far more and I look forward to seeing how her career progresses from here.
The final scene descends into grand guignol territory, as Bernie’s quest to find his inner strength takes a terrible, and overly melodramatic, turn for the worse. But it works, thanks to Lowe and Holowaty’s commitment, and draws to a close a production that is not afraid to leave questions unanswered. You may not leave the theatre singing a tune, but your mind will be buzzing in other, more demanding ways.