John & Jen isn’t exactly devoid of stereotypes – the moody youngster John (Lewis Cornay) isn’t happy with Jen (Rachel Tucker) when the older sister decides to leave the family home to study for what our American friends call a college degree. Billed as a ‘brand new updated version’ of a show that was first performed off-Broadway in 1995, there are additional songs, but otherwise the story is, at its core, the same, although the timescales have changed. Whilst the original version had a timespan of 1952 to 1990, this one starts in 1985 and ends in 2022.
There are various references to what’s going on in the world, even if some of these come across as clunky: John sits, flicking through newspapers, announcing world events on either side of the turn of the millennium, from the passing of Diana, Princess of Wales to the acts of terrorism in New York City on 11 September 2001. There must be better ways to denote the passing of the years. Anyway, John goes from birth to the onset of adulthood (for narrative purposes, twice over) while Jen goes from early childhood to her forties, with quite a few stops along the way. If that wasn’t enough, much of the first half is sung-through, and this production doesn’t start until 8pm, but finishes the right side of 10pm, and even manages to have an interval.
I couldn’t help thinking whether Jen’s socialist ideals might have been more plausible in the Sixties than in the Noughties. And could it really be that John signs up to join the military frontline in ‘Gulf War Two’ with such unquestioning loyalty? Given what American patriotism can look like, even now, yes (perhaps I’ve seen too many productions of Hair over the years). Their father is, to call a spade a spade, an abuser, and quite why it is that John still wants to follow in his footsteps could, just maybe, have been explored in greater depth. But there’s no time to lose in such a longitudinal show, and while almost everyone grows up quickly, this dynamic duo really does develop at pace.
Towards the end of the second half, the show becomes more reflective and poignant. Some may welcome the change of pace. But it gives the show the feeling that it is running out of steam. It more than redeems itself in a heart-warming final number, which provides a sweet but not overdone musical theatre happy ending. Both Tucker and Cornay put in tour de force performances, avoiding melodrama, an impressive feat in a show with graveyard scenes and a boy who is never visited by Santa (nor, presumably, the tooth fairy). Both John and Jen go through the full range of human emotions, and the actors evidently enjoy the challenges of portraying a difficult but nonetheless plausible family life.
Cornay’s John is just as convincing as an eager schoolboy dashing about the stage as he is as a young adult. There’s a sense of finality, for instance as he packs belongings for a trip in ‘Bye Room’, while Tucker’s Jen brings the house down in the show’s eleven o’clock number, ‘The Road Ends Here’. There are plenty of laughs in the show, and a rich and varied score, performed here by a four-piece band. Overall, a worthy and enjoyable production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘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