Emblazoned over the poster for Muted is the strapline “The British Rent”. Well, Rent has some great songs: this show hasn’t. Rent has engaging characters: there are none here. Rent has sharp, wise-cracking dialogue: noticeably absent from this production. And Rent has a plausible and carefully crafted plot: no such luck in Muted. So whilst the show is undeniably British, Rent it ain’t.
It does have a swing, though. And a pond – neither of which feature in Rent – and if both were missing from this production it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. The swing looks like one of those “great ideas” that creatives have which everyone applauds at the beginning of the process but by the end, no-one can remember why it’s there. Still, everyone in the cast is obliged to have a go. And by “go” I mean ranging from the tentative push, to the awkward sit-on, through to the precarious standing sway. And in the case of Amanda, the mother, nervous swinging with empty champagne flute held trickily in the hand gripping the rope: a whole new meaning to tipsy. What we’d all really like to see, of course, is someone really going for it and give it a good few heaves. Unlikely: far too dangerous.
And as for the pond. I didn’t notice it at first. Whether that was deliberate or just because of the appalling lighting that characterised the show I don’t know. The girl next to me stage-whispered “There’s a bl**dy pond on stage!”
The pond looks like one of those “great ideas” that creatives have when they realise that they’ve got a pretty dull show on their hands that needs livening up which means of course that everyone in the cast is obliged to have a go: Dipping, sloshing, splishing, and splashing, with fingers, with hands with feet either shod or unshod and ultimately squatting and kneeling.
Now – is this a real pond or just fantasy? Difficult to know because it’s apparently in the central character’s “room” and characters who enter his room get in the pond and get wet. But we have imagined characters as well who also go in for a liberal use of the water (often whilst gently swinging). So the conclusion seems to be that the imagined characters have an imaginary pond that is also real so that the real characters can get down and dampy and play ducks to muted man’s drake; confused? Yep, me too. And, one would have to say, Directer Jamie Jackson seems mightily confused about this too. The central character Michael, when he’s remembering stuff with imagined characters, should use the pond exclusively and the real-time characters should not. That is the only way to play it. But I may well be howling at the moon. Still, on the moon you have the Sea of Tranquility: here we have the Pond of Irrelevance.
So to the plot: man in a hipster-style Harrington jacket (though not actually a Hipster himself as far as I can tell) undergoes a traumatic experience that makes him withdraw into himself and do what his teachers, no doubt, had been telling him to do most of his life i.e shut the f*** up. Man – Michael (David Leopold) – obliges. Ex-girlfriend Lauren (Tori Allen-Martin), now partner of faux-Hipster’s former best friend Jake (Jos Slovick) tries to get him to speak. And tries. And tries. And tries literally to destruction – of our patience that is. Former best friend also tries. As does faux-Hipster’s 28-year-old uncle who has been trying for six years. There is a bit of an inbuilt spoiler here, though. Whilst Michael writes in a little black notebook in lieu of speaking which he shows to characters (should have borrowed from Can You Hear Me Running and used a Go-Pro to project writing) he actually has a microphone strapped to his cheek which gives us a hint that he’s going to utter something at some point.
The big problem with having a mute central character, that no-one in the production seems to have grasped, is that if that character has a series of duologues with other characters (especially Lauren) then these are actually monologues which become increasingly tedious and interminably dull as the same stuff is rehashed over and over again. (The girl next to me got her phone out after a while and started scrolling through her messages: normally I’d be horrified and ask her to put it away but I could see her point). Allen-Martin as Lauren struggles with the role throughout. With background music she is frequently inaudible, has a whole range of awkward body movements and seems to hail from the either-sotto-voce-or-shouty-crackers school of music wherein there is a complete lack of subtlety and little emotion. I was wondering how casting Director Will Burton placed Allen-Martin in this until I realised that she co-wrote the show with Sarah Henley (Book) and Tim Prottey-Jones (Music and Lyrics).
Edd Campbell Bird makes a good attempt at underplaying imagined character Teenage Michael and sings tunefully, and his imagined mother Amanda (Helen Hobson) tries to lend some gravitas to the proceedings. What little humour there is gets injected by Mark Hawkins as Will, Michael’s uncle, who hugs him a lot but never gets round to asking the burning question: “Why is there a pond in your room, Michael?” He just sits in it instead. Jos Slovick as Jake looks like he’s been caught in the headlights as he wrestles with the sub-Eastenders dialogue but he makes sure he gets his feet wet before he gratefully disappears from Lauren and Michael’s life.
And David Leopold as silent Michael has a completely thankless task made even more thankless by the strange hand and arm movements that Director Jackson makes him undertake throughout the show, often copied or mirrored by other cast members. In my experience actors are not backwards in coming forwards to ask their director “Why am I doing this?” I would love to know what Jackson’s convincing explanation was to his cast. Because the movements are just silly.
Perhaps the worst decision in the show is to hide the band away behind one section of the audience. It’s a musical. It’s a musical about musicians – yes, both Michael and Jake were in a band together (called Lost Boy – geddit?).
By the end, the girl next to me was making loud noises with her ice-cubes and straw. Audiences can be annoying, then again so can some shows: in the pulsating London Fringe theatre scene, this show is one of those. The characters in Muted are soulless and unenthused in a show that is attempting, I assume, to be naturalistic. The Bunker, which is a fantastic new theatre space next to the Menier Chocolate Factory, sits right alongside Borough Market with its crowded bars and bistros all abuzz at the start of a vibrant Friday evening: exactly the sort of characters and atmosphere that Muted is trying to re-create, one assumes. The production team would do well to go out there and feel it so as to breathe some life into a show that is, I’m afraid, rather dull and depressing. Perhaps Badly Drawn Boy might have been a better bet for the lifted name of the band of unfulfilled dreams.
Review by Peter Yates
MUTED tells the story of Michael Brookman, an exceptional young musician whose band was on the brink of stardom, until his mother was suddenly killed in a hit and run accident. Since then he hasn’t uttered a word.
The show picks up Michael’s story three years after the accident. Michael lives largely in the past, re-running his teenage years in his mind. He is under the care of his frustrated, stock-broker young uncle who plans on moving to Singapore, and would like the ‘situation’ to just go away.
Lauren, Michael’s ex-girlfriend, has now hooked up with Jake, Michael’s ex-band-mate. Jake has pursued the band since the accident and finally has another shot at the big-time. But there’s one catch: The record label want Michael back as the frontman.
Jake persuades Lauren to help recruit Michael, but their reunion unearths long-forgotten feelings. As uncomfortable truths force their way out into the open, we are left wondering whether some cracks are just too big to paper over.
A NEW BRITISH POP-ROCK MUSICAL
Book by Sarah Henley
Directed by Jamie Jackson.
Music and Lyrics by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin
MUTED is brought to you by Interval Productions, the team behind the multi-award-nominated new musicals STREETS, ANOTHER WAY and EQUALLY.