Review of Next Thing You Know at Garden Theatre at Eagle London

Next Thing You Know - Bessy Ewa and Amelia Atherton - Photo by NatLPh.
Next Thing You Know – Bessy Ewa and Amelia Atherton – Photo by NatLPh.

Lambco Productions remain innovative and stoic as they constantly adapt to new social distancing regulations so that Londoners can enjoy musical theatre entertainment during the Great Pestilence of 2020. Their third musical outing at the Eagle Pub’s Garden Theatre (cleverly dry and warm and a great evening out no matter what!) is a showcase for 2020 musical theatre graduates in a revival of Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Saltzman’s 2011 musical of ‘quarter-life crises’.

Robert McWhir has assembled a fine cast and these troupers perform with so much heart, you might almost be distracted from contemplating how bittersweet their earning musical theatre degrees this year of all years must be. As a window into faces-to-watch, particularly the impressive pipes and pitch of Amelia Atherton (Lisa), Next Thing You Know offers a fillip of joy and hope. The only problem is: the musical itself is second-rate and really doesn’t need a revival. I’d have far rather seen the abundant talents of this cast and musicians showcased in a more interesting vehicle.

Originally conceived as the writers’ NYU graduate project some ten years ago, the ‘studenty-ness’ of the script and music shows. Although there are a few semi-promising numbers that feel like proto-Dear Evan Hansen tonally, plus some clever bits of comic business enacting web chat; essentially the story is undramatic and even corny. As a work, both textually and musically, it feels far more old-fashioned than something penned in the previous decade.

Four twenty-somethings are frustrated in love and ambition and emote about it through song. Like all young people, they must decide who they want to be and come of age. They contemplate relationships and careers. As a genre, simple coming of age stories can be pleasing. But to be the stuff of a successful musical, at least one toe-tapping number needs to emerge. Sadly, none did in Next Thing You Know. Musically, most numbers are down-tempo ballads with a schmaltzy middle-of-the-road feel. Each member of the cast could hit every note with aplomb but I found myself starting not to care very much because the tunes just weren’t catchy.

In terms of Ryan Cunningham’s book, he doesn’t create enough dramatic jeopardy to provoke an emotional connection – no matter how well the cast of four deliver. Despite the generally lacklustre writing, there are a few giggle-inducing quips but, in the main, as Lisa (who is a lesbian) knowingly observes, ‘you straight people sure wallow in self-pity a lot’.

Indeed there is an awful lot to this story that feels very like ‘white people’s problems’ and some of the buddy/rival numbers between Luke (Calum Henderson) and Darren (Nathan Shaw) feel like they belong in the fifties – an era that is occasionally mocked with references to Pat Boone but the joke that could be self-aware never really goes anywhere.

Coming of age does not need to be only ballads. Angst can be intense, angry and punk rock. Heartbreak can be expressed via the blues, jazz, folk or pop. Hope, love and dilemma can be sung in every genre under the sun. But Salzman’s score seems to only reach for needy, expository ballads with the occasional show-off octave reach. It gets tedious, as if watching a not very funny episode of Friends set to the B-sides of Marvin Hamlisch.

Solidly performed, this cast deserve praise and their talent is worth checking out. But as a piece of emotionally-moving theatre, even a few knowing Covid references and in-jokes can’t transform a fundamentally uninteresting musical.

3 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Next Thing You Know follows the story of four New Yorkers as they laugh, love and drink their way through the big questions that face all young dreamers who wake up in the city that never sleeps. One day you wake up, and instead of a hangover, you have a job. Instead of a fling, you have a live-in girlfriend. And instead of naïve dreams, you have reality.

Does marrying a really nice guy mean you’re settling down or just settling? Does taking a nine-to-five equal giving up or growing up? Does a decade in the city break you down or break you in?

Producer: Peter Bull for LAMBCO with Liam Gartland & Alice Croft for The Grad Fest
Director: Robert McWhir
Musical director: Aaron Clingham
Choreographer: William Spencer
Designer: David Shields
Lighting: Richard Lambert
Casting: Anne Vosser

Cast: Amelia Atherton, Bessy Ewa, Callum Henderson, Nathan Shaw.

Keys: Aaron Clingham
Guitar: Ashley Blasse

Garden Theatre at Eagle London
349 Kennington Lane, Vauxhall, SE11 5QY
Performances 20th – 31st October (no performances 26th & 30th)