Review of John & Jen at Southwark Playhouse
It’s not often that you can get to see a Broadway/West End lead performer in a 100-seater black-box theatre in SE1 but that’s what’s happening at the moment at The Little at Southwark Playhouse where Rachel Tucker is appearing in John & Jen. She should have been appearing on Broadway in Come From Away, a part she played with great success (and an Olivier nomination) in the West End but the closing of New York’s theatres due to Covid meant that she was back living in the UK and available to play Jen in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1995 off-Broadway musical John & Jen. And as an added bonus, playing alongside Tucker as John is one of theatre’s top emerging talents, Lewis Cornay.
John & Jen is a tale of two halves. In the first, we meet John who is Jen’s baby brother, and we watch him grow from a toddler into a man as we see Jen go from six to eighteen. Along the way we observe their relationship develop as the big sister looks after her brother as he goes from spoiled brat to a man. Then a terrible tragedy rips them apart and the first half ends in tears. In the second half, we meet a second John, this time he’s Jen’s son and we see their relationship develop as once again, we watch John grow from toddler through puberty into adulthood. Along the way, the show touches on numerous themes such as child abuse, the futility of war, sibling relationships, puberty, parenting etc, but all without lecturing the audience.
Lippa and Greenwald’s musical is a joy from start to finish making the audience think, laugh and shed a tear or two. The twenty or so songs are just sublime with the “11 o’clock number” “The Road Ends Here” literally stopping the show – and the other songs aren’t far behind. There is very little dialogue and at times it’s almost sung-through with the lyrics advancing the storyline.
The two performers are just wonderful with Rachel Tucker superb in a part that needs her not only to age from 6 to 46 but to go through a range of emotions and it’s a joy to watch her journey. She inhabits the role of Jen as (spoiler alert) she sees her beloved younger brother die in war and then brings up her son, smothering him with love and the kind of parental concerns that all parents go through trying to recreate the love she had for her brother. She acts superbly and sings like an angel whilst subtly aging and making quick-fire costume changes both on and off-stage – a sheer delight. Like Tucker, Lewis Cornay has to age – in his case from a toddler to a grown man – twice – once in each act. He does this superbly and is always believable. He too acts superbly and is very plausible especially as a stroppy teenager. To do this twice as two different John’s is a triumph, and he too sings wonderfully – he’s a great talent with a very big future.
Guy Retallack who’s married to Tucker directs this chamber musical with a deftness of touch that makes the two hours fly by. I’m not sure if it’s easy or hard to direct your wife but whichever it is, he does it wonderfully. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable and some of this must come from the direction. The action never stops as the couple age without make-up and the way they interact on stage is a joy to watch. Although written in
the nineties, Retallack asked Lippa and Greenwald if they would update it and they agreed so there are references to Covid and Trump and it gives the musical a contemporary dimension.
Special mention must go to the band which is just a string trio plus Musical Director Chris Ma on keyboards but at times they sound like a lush orchestra. I’m sure some credit for this must go to Musical Supervisor Michael Bradley but Ma directs the musicians superbly and they’re the perfect accompaniment for the two performers – a chamber orchestra for a chamber musical.
John & Jen only runs until August 21st as Tucker is going back to New York to resume her role in Come From Away so I suggest you get down to SE1 as soon as possible. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with superb performances from the two actors, the wonderful musicians and some extraordinary songs. When you leave, you’ll step into Newington Causeway with a song in your heart and a spring in your step and for a couple of hours at least, you’ll think all’s well in the world.
Review by John Groves
‘John & Jen’ is an emotional rollercoaster of a musical that explores the dynamics of family relationships. This production is the world premiere of a brand new updated version of the show by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, with orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown & Andrew Lippa.
1985. John & Jen, brother and sister, born seven years apart, grow up together, totally inseparable. Jen makes a “forever pact” with her little brother to always protect him against anything and anyone, including their own dad.
2005. Jen, alone in Canada with her baby boy whom she has named John, a living memorial to the brother she failed to protect.
The beautiful and haunting score emotionally captures the zeitgeist of contemporary America.
Jen – Rachel Tucker
John – Lewis Cornay
Creative Team: Director Guy Retallack, Musical Supervisor Michael Bradley, Musical Director Bob Broad, Scenic & Costume Design Natalie Johnson, Sound Design Andrew Johnson, Production Manager Matt Harper, Stage Manager Robyn-Amber Manners, Casting Leon Kay Casting, Produced by Bray Productions.
28 July – 21 August
John & Jen
Music by Andrew Lippa
Book by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
Lyrics by Tom Greenwald
77-85 Newington Causeway,
London SE1 6BD