Free Solo: A New Musical seems, at face value, a peculiar choice for a show. The term ‘free solo’ refers to outdoor climbers who make their way up rocks without a rope or protective equipment of any description. They climb high enough such that a fall would result in serious injury, or death. As there is no indication that the narrative presented in this show is based on a true story, it is reasonable to assume it is entirely fictitious – and, as disclaimers appearing in the credits of television dramas and motion pictures tend to say, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
John Robinson (Simone Leonardi) is married to Jessica (Esther Shanson); together they have a daughter, Hazel (Cecily Redman). The show’s critical incident is revealed fairly early on – it has to be, because the story is effectively told in retrospect. John’s journal is rediscovered some years after he died following sustained fatal injuries during a free solo climbing expedition. He had previously gifted the journal to his daughter, but being of teenage years, she was not interested at the time in adding to her library, preferring instead to spend her non-study time socialising online. This does explain why Hazel feels it appropriate to tell all and sundry about her father’s exploits.
With fourteen scenes but only eight songs, one of which is a fuller version of a ‘fragment’ in an earlier scene, I remain undecided as to whether this should be classed as a musical in the fullest sense of the word, or if this is really a play with songs. Without wanting to discredit the efforts of the show’s creatives and cast, there were moments when I wondered if this production would actually work best as a straight play. So much more could have been made, for example, of the differences of opinion that there must have been between John, always striving to do better, and Jessica, a single parent in all but name.
What the musical format does offer is time for reflection (one of the musical numbers is even called ‘Waiting’ – make of that what you will). Each member of the on-stage trio gets their own moment in the spotlight: Hazel gets the ‘I wish’ song, ‘Behind My Father’s Eyes’, Jessica profoundly tells it like it is in ‘We Made Ourselves A Mountain’, and John quite proficiently hits the high notes in ‘In A Moment’. In her formative years, Hazel thought of her father as some sort of superhero – though I have no idea what abnormal attributes John possessed that directly contributed to the betterment of society.
The amount of repetitiveness, though not, I suppose, uncommon to musical theatre, started to feel like padding in the last few scenes. ‘Spiderdad’ stood out as the sole big song-and-dance melody, a jaunty number whose lyrics add little to the narrative. The song itself, however, is well-performed and well-choreographed. A small band, comprising MD/keyboards (Flora Leo), guitar (Michael Burrows) and percussion (Miguel Cuevas), did brilliantly, in that the cast’s vocals were never in danger of being drowned out.
Redman’s Hazel is the stand out performance, capturing the miscellaneous moods of a secondary school pupil so vividly, and often without having to use words. The sense of humour, although leaving me largely stony-faced, is tasteful. The ending was unexpected, though what Hazel decides to do after having seen and read her father’s journal may help her understand what drove John to such extremes, over and over again. Without giving it all away, it would seem that John may have overcome the fears associated with dangerous climbing, but is the free solo climbing career, figuratively speaking, running away from the reality of life? A spirited and thoughtful production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
John Robinson was a world-renowned free solo climber. Until he fell to his death at the age of 43. Eleven years later, his daughter Hazel discovers his old climbing journal. As she dives into her childhood, reliving memories with her fearless, daredevil dad and patient, optimist mother; she is desperate to answer one burning question: Will she ever understand her father?
Featuring an uplifting original score infused with folk, rock, country, and even 90s-cartoon theme songs, Free Solo is a powerful new musical about overcoming fear and what it means to belong to a family.
Free Solo was initially developed as part of the MA Musical Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London. Free Solo was also shown at the BEAM2018 Industry Showcase for emerging new musicals.
CAST: Free Solo features Cecily Redman as Hazel Robinson, Simone Leonardi as John Robinson and Esther Shanson as Jess Robinson.
Alice Greening presents
Free Solo: A New Musical
Book, music, and lyrics by Jack Godfrey and Celine Snippe