John & Jen (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 3, 2021 in Theatre

Writers: Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald

Director: Guy Retallack

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Broadway writer composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa has for long been undervalues in this, his country of birth. Recent UK productions of Big Fish and The Addams Family have gone some way towards rectifying this, but here we have an opportunity to appraise his first show from 1993, written in collaboration with Tom Greenwald. This updated version is receiving its world premiere and has fresh orchestrations by Lippa and Jason Robert Brown.

The revised version spans a period of around 35 years, from the mid-1980s to the present day. It begins with seven-year-old Jen picking up her new-born baby brother John, promising to care for and protect him throughout his life. Together, they embark on a journey from childhood playfulness and teenage rebellion through to the harsh realities of responsible adulthood. The show is a two-hander, a chamber musical, performed here with a four-piece band under the direction of Chris Ma.

Designer Natalie Johnson sets the show in a shed (or perhaps an attic) filled with boxes of toys and other children’s paraphernalia. The siblings belong to an all-American family, perhaps typical in our perceptions, but the writers make clear that there are cracks in this idyllic structure. Lurking in the background is a controlling, violent father, despised by Jen, but eventually worshiped and treated as a role model by John. The father’s presence never comes to the fore, but is suggested subtly as, for example, when Santa Claus fails to leave presents on Christmas Eve.

Director Guy Retallack’s production blends frivolous humour with powerful emotional clout. However strong the material, an intimate show like this can only succeed if the performances are good and here they are superb.  Rachel Tucker, recently triumphant in the West End production of Come from Away, takes Jen’s girlish playfulness, teenage angst and doting motherhood all comfortably in her stride and belts out the show’s finale in a style that almost literally brings the small house down. Lewis Cornay, youthful in appearance, but always playing John as still younger, commands the stage with impressive authority.

The story is about love and loss, standing still and moving forwards, holding on and letting go. In examining American family life, the show touches on themes that Lippa was to return to in Big Fish, but the story is also told against the backdrop of turbulent history, incorporating political debates in song between the hawkish John and pacifist Jen. 

Almost sung through, the show includes several songs of stand alone quality, all done full justice by Tucker and Cornay. However, the factor that ultimately makes John & Jen so special is the skill with which it tells a multi-layered human story in musical form. In so doing, it frequently brings tears to the eyes.  

Performance date: 2 August 2021

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