This is a brand-new British musical that is all over the map, in every sense. It’s an intriguing musical adaptation of the true-life story of Phyllis Pearsall, a woman who personally helped to map and create the A-Z Atlas to London which her own autobiography claimed was London’s first, but in fact had been predated by Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas.
As conceived by producer Neil Marcus, who brought composer Gwyneth Herbert and playwright Diane Samuels together to write it, this is a story ripe with interest and incident, drama and contrasting textures, as the public and private lives of Pearsall’s collide and intersect, and we see scenes from her childhood and the troubled relationship of her parents and she with them.
Music, of course, is a great binder and occasionally spellbinder here and if Diane Samuels’ book too often goes off on tangents, Herbert’s score is moody and lyrically astute enough to keep the dramatic momentum on track.
There are echoes – perhaps, too many – of Sondheim in the jagged, nervous twists of the score and the emphatic cleverness of some of the lyric writing. As with Sondheim, these twists release into sumptuous and insinuating melodies. There’s also a frequent conversational tone which carries reminders of Adam Cork’s seminal score to London Road. But Herbert’s music drives the action and takes us to places – if only in a sometimes bald recitation of place names from Pearsall’s overflowing index cards.
There’s a real heart to the production, particularly in its tender portrait of Pearsall, whom Isy Suttie invests with a stunning blend of the gauche and sincere, the knowing and the vulnerable. Her parents are also respectively punchily and poignantly brought to life by Michael Matus and Frances Ruffelle, simultaneously driving and undermining their daughter.
Stuart Matthew Price, one of London’s very best male theatre voices, is underused in the role of Phyllis’s brother Tony, but offers stoic support. The five-strong ensemble around them includes a powerful presence from Sidney Livingstone as Mrs P’s draughtsman, Mr Fountain.
Director Sam Buntrock seems to borrow a John Doyle technique or two – the show recalls Doyle’s production of Sondheim’s Road Show more than once – but the performances make the show. Klara Zieglerova’s design is full of atmospheric support, and Steve Ridley’s musical direction of a band suspended on a platform over the stage makes the most of Sarah Travis and Herbert’s intricate orchestrations.
- Southwark Playhouse, London
- February 25-March 29
- Authors: Neil Marcus, Diane Samuels book, Gwyneth Herbert music/lyrics
- Director: Sam Buntrock
- Musical director: Steve Ridley
- Choreographer: Nick Winston
- Producers: Neil Marcus, Paul Tyrer, Jamie Clark, The Booking Office, Michael Peavoy Productions
- Cast: Isy Suttie, Frances Ruffelle, Michael Matus, Stuart Matthew Price, Ian Caddick, Sarah Earnshaw, Max Gallagher, Sidney Livingstone, Dawn Sievewright
- Running time: 2hrs 30mins