In May 2017, a story broke about drug users ‘getting Winstoned’ by the new £5 note, which had already come under criticism from certain religious groups and animal activists who were unhappy that the new polymer fiver had traces of animal fat. The stronger plastic (well, plastic-ish) notes had also left drug users with cut noses after trying to snort cocaine. The term ‘getting Winstoned’ is apparently a reference to Sir Winston Churchill’s (1874-1965) headshot on the fivers. I mentioned this to another reviewer as we were sat in the theatre waiting for the show to begin, and sure enough, just before the interval, doing drugs was listed as one of the usages of a particular five-pound note whose journey this musical takes its audiences on.
“There is no hard evidence to suggest that our show is particularly steeped in truth,” writers and composers Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees write in an introductory note in the show’s programme. Well, I’ve just backed up at least one line (pun acknowledged but not intended) in the show, and there must be other kernels of truth in the near-universal topics that include love and relationships, the death of a family member, coming of age and handling difficult situations in the workplace.
Ellison acts as part-narrator, part-chorus and actor-musician (on guitar), and off-stage, Lees was on keyboards, accompanied by Matt Billups (drums), Florian Belbeoch and Will Robertson (cellos) and Sam Pegg (bass). In the warmth of the Southwark Playhouse (it is, at the time of writing, July) I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Dan Buckley playing the role of a homeless man in the middle of winter (suspension of disbelief, y’see), sat on stage in a thick jacket and blanket whilst a good proportion of the audience sat there fanning themselves. But the show must go on and all that, and there are no weak links to report in this company.
Luke Bayer, Aoife Clesham and Hiba Elchikhe complete the cast. The programme makes no attempt to list every character they share between them, and the limitations of trying to enact a ‘surprise party’ with rather more than five people in attendance were portrayed hilariously. Quite rightly, more time is given over to certain characters, such as a schoolteacher, known only as ‘Miss’, who is targeted repeatedly by an anonymous letter writer – in a word, a stalker. In the second half, Bayer impressively plays the role of a widowed father to a slightly stroppy teenager (Buckley), and everything about school life that I detested years ago remains prevalent in supposedly more enlightened times.
There is a certain rapidity and rhythm to many lyrics that brings to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights musical – in both shows, the stories told are plausible, convincing and distinctly working class. The show even finds a way of bringing the ubiquity of mobile telephony into this highly contemporary narrative – Clesham gets to belt out several messages to an ex-lover in ‘Press Hash To Re-Record’ to good comic effect.
It is, admittedly, occasionally a tad difficult to keep up with where exactly the fiver has gone to, but with musical numbers that vary more than sufficiently in tempo and tone, the whole cast shines in a surprisingly triumphant, glorious and hopeful story. I wonder how different the journey travelled by a £50 note would be like – I can’t imagine it would be as adventurous and varied as the path taken by £5. It’s a lot of fun overall but also has poignant moments – one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this emotional rollercoaster. I’d rather have the world of Fiver than a completely cashless society any day of the week.
Review by Chris Omaweng
FIVER follows the story of a humble £5 note as it passes through the hands and pockets of different people in London. Often unnoticed and obviously unaware, the fiver is present for significant moments in each person’s life – from an appreciation of their skills as a street performer, the start or end of relationships to the simple realisation that they can afford a bed for the night.
Luke Bayer, Aoife Clesham, Alex James Ellison, Dan Buckley, Hiba Elchikhe.
Book, Music, and Lyrics: Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees
Musical Director: Tom Lees
Set Design: Justin Williams
Lighting Design: Alex Musgrave
by Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees
77-85 Newington Causeway
London, SE1 6B
Wednesday 3 – Saturday 20 July 2019