Three couples – one young and just coming together, another planning to start a family and the third meeting again in late middle age, long after a painful divorce – all occupy the same New York apartment at different times and they are the focus of this new chamber musical by Ray Rackham (book and Lyrics) and Tom Lees (music). Everything about the piece says “off-Broadway hit”, but its actual birthplace, just a few months ago, was Fulham, at Rackham’s London Theatre Workshop. Programme notes make it clear that it remains a work in progress and, much as the commitment to develop it further is heartening, it is, when at its best, pretty good already. Straying into the territory of Woody Allen and Stephen Sondheim is a brave move by these Brits, suggesting that their primary inspiration may have come largely from works by such greats and that conveying the New York “feel” is at the heart of everything that they are striving for. Sondheim features similar characters in Company, but he keeps his couples apart; here, they are together on the small St James Studio stage, already cluttered with furniture, enacting their different stories and it is this intimacy, this feeling of connections being made across decades and generations which makes the show rather special. There is an element in the narrative which, seemingly, Rackham (who also directs) wants to keep from the audience until late on and the show is much stronger for him doing so, but perhaps future productions ought to give less away in the programme. The youngest couple played by Alex Crossley (the girl) and Alex James Ellison, are the least engaging of the three; their characters are not fully developed and their story feels trite (also very familiar to anyone who saw Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre recently). Lizzie Wofford is touching as a stay-at-home wife, preparing to move out of the city to have children, but oblivious to the probable infidelity of her workaholic husband (Johnjo Flynn). Nova Skipp and Peter Gerald are both convincingly embittered as the divorced couple, still clearly in love with each other, but defeated by irreconcilable differences. If the quality of the singing is inconsistent, the performances are all strong dramatically. Dreams for the future and regrets for mistakes of the past, yearning and loss, are conveyed movingly in Lees’ rich, melodic score which features several haunting piano riffs. However, the songs, generally wistful and melancholic, lack variety and the show cries out for at least one comic number in each act to lighten the tone. Likewise, the book and lyrics tend to be over-serious and a few more infusions of Allen-style wit would have been welcome. The show gains depth as the three stories unfold and sequences in which characters from the different stories link together through song carry extraordinary emotional power. Apartment 40c may not originate from off-Broadway, but, continuing its development, that could well be its destination.
Performance date: 8 April 2015
Production photo: Matthew Lees