Song From Far Away at Hampstead Theatre | Review

There’s a lot going on in Song From Far Away, set entirely in a room that’s very functional but looks too sparse and clinical to be Willem’s (Will Young) – or anybody’s – home. Not so much a musical but rather a play with a few melodies, the story sees Willem return to Amsterdam, having emigrated to the United States, because there’s been a death in the family. And there’s a lot, as one might expect, about that loss – his brother Pauli having died unexpectedly, and long before his time, but it’s far from deeply oversentimental remembrance. Indeed, some of what Willem says could only be said to close family and friends without sounding unkind.

Will Young in Song From Far Away at Hampstead Theatre. Photo Mark Senior.
Will Young in Song From Far Away at Hampstead Theatre. Photo Mark Senior.

It seems absurd and ridiculous, at surface level, for Willem to be writing letters to Pauli when the intended recipient will never read them, but the time spent letter writing are more or less the only occasions in this period of bereavement when Willem isn’t discombobulated by all the changes to people, places and things in Amsterdam since he was last there. He even considers the airport to be a suburb in its own right, relative to the size it used to be as he remembers it the last time – and in particular, how long it took to get to the bar.

It’s those sorts of details, however, that makes this a compelling story, grounding it in realism. The set works brilliantly, with the ceiling of the room changing height, signifying the feeling of being hemmed in, or otherwise feeling small and more than a bit lost in a world that just keeps on turning, relentlessly, not giving Willem as much as a nanosecond to take it all in. The cause of Pauli’s death is revealed to be inherited, leading to medical advice to Willem and his father to get themselves checked out. And so, Willem writes to Pauli, thanking him for saving his (Willem’s) life. The irony is not lost on neither Willem nor the audience – losing Pauli results in those who remain coming together in ways they didn’t before. (Well, up to a point: “I asked Mum if I should stay for dinner and she told me I shouldn’t. She looked right at me. She said it was time for me to go home.”)

The songs (there is, despite the show’s title, more than one) have a profoundness in their simplicity, a very different feel to the pomp and circumstance of a lot of songs in the theatre, whether in a musical production or not. Wonderful though the razzmatazz can be, as I experienced recently seeing a revival of 42nd Street, hearing innermost thoughts being sung, softly, as they are in this production, generates a powerful poignancy, again without burdening the audience with earnest heartbreak.

Andrew Exeter’s lighting design is, for a solitary moment, overkill, but otherwise very much in keeping with Willem’s varied emotions during the performance. Will Young’s delivery is nuanced and crystal clear in this bittersweet and compelling production that held my attention from start to finish.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Song From Far Away is an unforgettable story and a personal letter to those left behind.

One crisp winter day in New York, Willem receives a phone call – it’s time to go home.

Home to Amsterdam – to estranged family and forgotten relationships. As he reflects on his life, unwilling to face the future, he finds himself reaching out to the brother he lost.

CAST:
WILLEM – WILL YOUNG

CREATIVE:
WRITERS – SIMON STEPHENS AND MARK EITZEL
DIRECTOR – KIRK JAMESON
DESIGNER – INGRID HU
SOUND DESIGNER – JULIAN STARR
COMPOSER, MUSICAL SUPERVISOR AND ARRANGER – PAUL SCHOFIELD

28 JUN – 22 JUL 2023
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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