A large number of characters are played by five performers in 35mm: A Musical Exhibition, though some of the characters go by names like Image, Nightwalker, She and Watcher. Not that such names are actually referred to – nobody says, “Hey, Watcher, how are you today?” The title needs still more context. It is not a promenade or immersive performance. The audience is seated as it would be in any other theatre auditorium, even if this one is relatively small. The emphasis is on the word ‘musical’ rather than ‘exhibition’, although on reflection this is really more of a ‘song cycle’.
What happens, then, is that a series of photographs, sixteen in total, are considered, one by one, and a story concocted from each of them. The stories are ultimately disparate, but a sort-of narrative runs through by way of transition musical numbers, which smooth over scene changes as well as stop substantial melodic and key changes from sounding too jarring. It is entirely sung-through, which will be some people’s pleasure and other people’s pain.
The stories chosen are of a personal nature, rather than trying to change the world or make bold political statements. Although some of the specific Americanisms in the lyrics went over my head somewhat (I found myself looking up David LaChapelle on the train home), this didn’t affect comprehension of the storylines very much in the end, such is the relative universality of, say, having loved and lost, or the perils involved in looking after a baby.
There are also more religious references that one might expect from a modern musical, with ‘Hallelujahs’ and ‘Amens’ thrown in. But it’s not like someone is about to get their Salvation Army tambourine out: the styles of music vary from the driving beats in ‘Why, Must We Tell Them Why?’ to the more reflective ‘The Party Goes With You’ to the ballad-styled but country-worded ‘Leave, Luanne’. Some of the photographs are rather abstract, and thus open to a number of interpretations. Listening to the lyrics and music accompanying certain photos, it felt like being in a museum of modern art, where it is necessary to read the description next to a painting in order to make coherent sense of the painting itself.
It is difficult to pick a stand-out performance from the many songs and scenes, for two reasons. Firstly, the show has been extremely well-cast, and they are all oh-so-good. Secondly, each actor gets their turn to shine and nobody hams anything up here – the cheerfulness and the poignancy, the joy and the heartache, the moments of jubilation and moments of reflection, are captured so credibly by a small and hard-working company.
There are better photographs out there than the ones that feature in this show. but to make too much of a fuss about that would be very much like the proverbial bad workman (or woman) who always blames their tools. It’s like those debating societies that deliberately pick preposterous motions, such as ‘This House believes spoons are useless’, because it is in the craft of putting forward a good argument that an audience is won over. The stories in this show are remarkably compelling, such that when the show moves on to the next photograph, and thus the next story, I was left wondering what then happened to the previous photo’s characters. I’m usually very
supportive of shows that leave an audience wanting more, but the sheer number of stories that are underdeveloped began to irritate.
At least the songs are complex, both in the narratives they spin and in their musicality; a six-piece band, led by Joe Bunker, does a terrific job of gliding through some sophisticated arrangements. If you like good show tunes performed in a range of different music genres, this is a production for you. A vigorous and appealing show.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A picture is worth 1,000 words — what about a song?
35mm, each photo creates a unique song from a moment frozen in time.
Award-winning composer Ryan Scott Oliver’s music is inspired by Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy’s images in this thrilling new alternative-rock musical. Together, they weave a collection of remarkable stories told through song.
Featuring hit songs such as The Ballad of Sara Berry and Leave Luanne, director Adam Lenson (Whisper House, Songs for a New World) reimagines this piece in a stunning new production this September.
Maisey Bawden, Gregor Duncan, George Maguire, Christina Modestou and Samuel Thomas
Adam Lenson – Director
Assistant Director – Eleanor Coote
Joe Bunker – Musical Director
Justin Williams – Design
Jonny Rust – Assistant Design
May Clyne – Costume Design
Sam Waddington – Lighting Design
Huw Williams – Sound Design
Emily Humphrys – Stage Manager
Music and Lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver
Based on Photographs by Matthew Murphy
Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Ryan Scott Oliver
Additional Percussion arrangements by Jeremy Yaddaw
Additional Guitar arrangements by Matt Hinkley
Monday 18 – Saturday 30 September
Running time: Approx 70 mins with no interval