views from the gods

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Firing Life - A New Musical
The Pirate Castle
24th August 2012

★★★★★

Emma Trow, the writer, director, producer, piano player and all-round creative vision behind Firing Life is either incredibly brave or possibly a little insane. How else could anyone be so determined as to put together a existential musical with dance, physical theatre, a chorus and large ensemble? The high concept combined with the practicalities are a recipe for disaster. Any of the individual elements lead to myriad problems and any wrong decision results in the piece not working or worse - looking incredibly self-indulgent.

It's with this in mind that I conclude Trow must be some sort of genius. The work hangs together with majestic grace and poise and the vision is honed to perfection, utterly stripped of pretense to provide a raw, emotional and truthful experience that it's hard not to be affected by.

If the premise seems familiar, it's probably because variations on the theme have been used everywhere, from novels to sitcoms. Here, 10 people die in a motorway pile-up and are asked by God to provide their defining moment and essentially justify themselves. But Trow really runs with the concept, mining it for laughs as deftly as she does for tragedy and on the way creating a number of poignant, beautiful scenes.

The bereaved provide the chorus, standing with the audience in the land of the living, behind the invisible barrier of life and death. They come and go as they are referenced in each character's stories and despite their lack of stage time, their presence is felt, enriching the action. The dead, meanwhile, begin to come to terms with their predicament and each gives an account of their life usually - but not necessarily - in song. To be honest, I don't want to give away much because part of the show's power comes from watching it unfold in the moment.

The songs themselves are heartfelt, accompanied by Trow on piano and Matthew Gill, showing significant prowess for his age, on the violin. Each is different, to marry itself better to the character. Thus we have poppier numbers, ballads and almost operatic tunes. But, as is the hallmark of any great musical, there's a definite feel and through-line to the show. Alongside the music, movement and dance are vital, with the dead initially rising zombie-like in an eerie dynamism. As each of the dead move in and out of their dormant state, they do so wonderfully and no small amount of time and effort has been expended upon the crisp blocking. Throughout, the car crash, a womb, a rock, and an escape route are created with precision, clarity and definition.

The cast - mainly northern, with some association to Italia Conti - are sensational. Each is totally believable and filled to the brim with pathos and emotion, even those portraying lighter characters. But special mention must go to Thomas Hewitt who cuts through the darkness with his tragicomic account of Luca, a tramp, who wants to spit in the eye of God for his unfair hand in life. In the spirit of Shakespeare's fools, he speaks the truth maybe more so than any other character and gives us some real laughs.

Again, without spoiling the harrowing ending, Beth Loughran and Shelley-Ann Harrison are breathtaking. Initially in the background of the action, more wraith-like than the dead, their truly unsettling looks and macabre behaviour (all right angles and empty stares) give the perfect foil for Jessica Parkinson's Jo and Natalya Smith's little Jo to act against. It's a nerve-jangling climax that knocks the wind out of the audience, leaving them, much like the protagonists, breathless.

One affectation many writers have with a group of strangers is the need to tie everything up in a bow, having each somehow impact upon one another's lives, à la Pulp Fiction. Trow doesn't succumb to this tedious temptation and only writes a backstory linking two of the character groups, which again defies expectation to be something fresh. In fact, her script in general is tight, assured and perfectly pitched, full of clever wordplay. One example, a name, evokes ideas of childhood sweets but also an ironic sense of sterility, and shows the real love and thought that has gone into every aspect of the production.

I'm not an easy person to impress when it comes to musical theatre. But in case I haven't made myself clear, while it does take perhaps a jot too long convincing the dead of their predicament, this show is magnificent. It's at this point I'd usually suggest it needs a wider audience or to be transferred to a bigger stage, but the closeness is vital to the work's undoubted success. The best I can say, then, is that I hope that, with Trow's permission, it gets picked up by other groups as hugely talented as this and is shown across the country, to everyone, in a way that enriches rather than diminishes its legacy.

Firing Life - A New Musical ran from 23rd to 26th August 2012, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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