first night


Despite being a little rough around the edges, Jonnie Grande finds much to praise in Tone Deaf's production of Pasek and Paul's musical.

Tone Deaf Theatre Company’s debut production of Edges poses a fascinating question, although perhaps not one that authors Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had in mind when penning their lyrics. It pertains to the very nature of theatre itself. More specifically: where, when and how does a song cycle stop being a concert, and become a piece of theatre?


When watching the show, take a moment to shut your eyes. Let your ears do all the work, and just listen. Let your mind wander. Forget where you are. But all the time continue to listen. Open your eyes again, and I posit that you will find the theatre somewhat smaller than you were expecting. For this production is, without a doubt, vocally superb. From solo numbers, through duets and trios, and culminating with six voices blending seamlessly together in perfect harmony, the sound from opening to finale could, would and maybe should fill a much larger venue.


Only two of the six performers have had lead roles in a Durham musical prior to Edges, a real testimony to the strength and depth of musical theatre talent here. Not only is not a single note dropped, but each voice is captivating, engrossing and charismatic in its own distinctive way. And ninety minutes into the show, they still have more to give, throwing up endless surprises as they take on new styles of song. For two hours the six voices don’t stop singing. But we never tire of them, and we never want them to stop.


Still, theatre – even musical theatre – requires more than just polished vocals, however shiny they might be, and at times, both Pasek and Paul’s lyrics and Tone Deaf’s production give us more. At its best, when everything comes together, the show is thought-provoking, original, and intensely powerful. Indeed, the writing, production and performances in general reach these climaxes during the slower, more reflective solos.


We have to wait a while for the first such moment, Nat Goodwin’s ‘Lying There’, but I would have happily waited much longer. As she sits cuddled under a blue blanket, watching her lover sleep, she is the first of the cast to really use the lyrics to tell a story, in turn forcing the audience to finally engage with the words being sung. And just in time, Pasek and Paul throw up a gem, as Nat touchingly ponders, “But wishing I could love you / Isn’t really loving / I suppose”.


These zeniths in the production fortunately come thicker and faster in the second half, and hit us right from the off. Joe Leather is at last able to display his commanding ability to connect with the text in ‘Along the Way’, as he meditates on his fear of raising a kid. Leather is provided with a poignant and original lyric, and he more than does it justice. As he recites a series of “Small examples, of mistakes I made and stupid things I did”, he is left wondering “Why would you choose me to raise a kid?” And he forces us to wonder the very same of ourselves.


But Hannah Howie just has the edge over these, and the other highlights (including Tash Cowley’s ‘Perfect’ and Andy Kempster’s ‘One Reason’). In her choking performance of ‘Wylie’, she surely establishes herself as one of Durham’s most exciting performers. With her crystal-sharp voice, each word pierces the audience like a dagger. As the lyrics shift into focus, the eyes forget to blink. Her prayer is mesmerising, haunting, unforgettable.


But hard as it may be, we must not let Howie et al. carry us away. Aside from these moments of brilliance, I’m left wondering whether Edges lets its theatrical mask slip. Primarily, there is a lack of any overarching story, resulting in no dramatic tension to intrigue us. Admittedly, this is a song cycle, and that is to be expected. But the lyrics here are frequently repetitive and rarely tell us anything new. They purport to explore the search for love, commitment and meaning as we move into adulthood, but I fear the writing is less insightful than it thinks it is. ‘Be My Friend’ is full of tired jokes about Facebook, and ‘Coasting’ has nothing unique to say on the banality of our everyday conversation in the first verse, let alone in the fourth.


Tone Deaf, however, don’t give Pasek and Paul the leg up they need. Too often, the lyrics are left to do all the work themselves, work they simply aren’t cut out for. Despite showing us at moments what they are capable of, at other times all six performers are guilty of failing to engage with the text. The vocals may be spot on, but the performances leave the audience cold. Yes, they may continue to command the stage, but they don’t always command our attention. Similarly, the decision for each performer to play the same character throughout the show is not followed through far enough, leaving the audience unable to connect to individual characters, only to individual songs.


Whilst Douglas Gibbs has avoided the pitfall of a completely static show, the staging is nevertheless too formulaic to enhance the impact of the lyrics. The set of stairs is heavily underused, despite calling out to be allowed to add some much needed depth. The lighting design is similarly too bland to tease out anything the performances do provide, whilst the numerous changes occasionally distract.


At its best, Edges is a refreshing offering with moments of theatrical brilliance. But the rest of the time? I wonder what prevents it from merely becoming a concert performance, albeit a very good concert performance at that.


11 February 2011

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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