first night

Songs for a New World

George Rexstrew gives his take on TDTC's latest production.

As a genre, musical theatre is plagued by the stereotype of big dance numbers, cheesy smiles and jazz hands. However, Songs for a New World turns that on its head and instead strips it to its bare bones, presenting us with a song cycle that explores themes of love, loss and change. I entered Hatfield Chapel on Thursday night not knowing what to expect, but Tone Deaf Theatre Company have concocted a little gem of a piece—and you’d be a fool to miss it.

Saroja Lily Ratnavel was, quite simply, breathtaking. Controlled but raw, hilarious yet devastating, Ratnavel proved herself to be a master of storytelling, and her renditions of ‘Stars and the Moon’ and ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ were utterly heartbreaking. To capture the essence of a song so completely is no mean feat, but in these two she did, and it was when stood still with subtle expression that she was at her best. Ratnavel’s performance was one of my favourites in DST since arriving in Durham four years ago, and I look forward to following her progress in the society. Despite this, I would advise her to take more care with her breathing in ‘Just One Step’, as lyrics were occasionally lost. Meriel Killeen was also an inspired piece of casting as Man 1. Impressively singing at the originally-written octave for a male performer, Killeen was a vocal powerhouse, carrying many a song with attitude and flair. Her performance of ‘Flying Home’ towards the show’s end was nothing short of exceptional, and her carefully considered movement and physicality was outstanding, as she commanded the stage with ease. I would say, however, that she can afford to rein in the emotional weight of her character during the earlier sections of musical numbers, so as to allow more room for emotional build. Sam Baumal, as Man 2, showcased some seriously strong vocals, while Becky Brookes convincingly brought out the more vulnerable elements to Woman 1. However, particularly during solo numbers, their emotional arcs were not always as sufficiently explored as Ratnavel and Killeen’s—I suspect this may be due to a lack of clear direction. That said, there was a real ensemble feel about the piece, and under the guidance of musical director Issie Osborne and her team, the foursome produced some delicious harmonies and a near-faultless vocal display.

Speaking of directorial decisions, I do admittedly have one big gripe with this production. Though I don’t question the talent of the five dancers, the decision to incorporate dancing was indeed questionable and, in my opinion, gratuitous. It was more distracting than enriching, particularly during the development of Brookes and Baumal’s love story, which was lost altogether. The strength of Songs for a New World lies in its simplicity, and I wish the directors had shown more faith in the four leading performers to tell their individual stories through acting and singing alone. Lighting also proved problematic, especially when actors entered the thrust, and there were balancing issues with one particular microphone. I would also suggest that members of the production team avoid positioning themselves at the stage entrance, as it often broke the illusion for audience members and became distracting. For a show that could be performed almost anywhere, the choice of Hatfield Chapel was an intriguing one. While it did offer an intimate and somewhat haunting quality, it wasn’t used to its best effect, and the staging meant that I was often left unsure of where to look during numbers that incorporated both singing and dancing.

This said, Jenny Baker and Florence Russell should be proud of their Durham directorial debuts. This was a genius choice of show, and it holds a lot of promise. Packed with punch, talent and heart, TDTC’s production of Songs for a New World is the perfect tonic to second-term syndrome, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to both musical and non-musical theatre lovers. Although tickets are apparently sold out, so you better get begging.

18 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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