views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

John & Jen
The Drayton Theatre
16th February 2015

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for John and Jen

Photography © Ben Kelly

From the moment that Jen (Saratha Rajeswaran) claps eyes on her baby brother John (Kevin Sherwin) she swears to protect him forever. Well, right up until puberty hits and she starts to feel embarrassed rather than maternal. He responds to this by becoming deliberately irritating and antagonistic and they both begin to make some very different choices in life. Jen transforms into a laid-back hippy, John enlists, in a move which horrifies his elder sister. Spanning roughly four decades in a largely linear fashion, Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's John & Jen is a touching story of sibling love, which covers a lifetime, but ultimately focuses on the bonds first made in childhood.

The set design is delightfully cluttered - an intelligently crafted tangle of memories and nostalgia. The packing boxes hint at key moments that have already happened - that are yet to happen - and that Jen compartmentalises as she grows up and tries to deal with her shattered relationship with her brother. The use of building blocks spelling out each sibling's name reinforces the link to childhood that is ever-present, even when it should by all rights stay in the past.

Blackouts are used by lighting designer Will Ingram to effectively mark the passage of time, and this is aided by some swift costume changes, resulting in a first act which feels punchy and fast-paced. But whilst the second act is used to further develop the character of Jen, it doesn't feel strictly necessary - it's the same length, but it could stand separately as an optional epilogue or even sequel. Time slows down, and our rather involved attachment to the protagonists begins to falter.

Kevin Sherwin and Saratha Rajeswaran as John and Jen

Photography © Ben Kelly

Rajeswaran and Sherwin have beautiful voices, every note is crisp and clear, complemented by the orchestra under the skilful musical direction of Sarah Burrell (Lora Marinova on cello, James Hulme on percussion and Burrell herself on keys). The two performers transcend their normal playing ages, kicking off the production with a believable childlike glee and innocence which firmly establishes their connection. Both are fantastically expressive, conveying a number of complex emotions and belting out song after song without a breather. Sometimes roles are cast race-blind to make a point. Here - even though the pair couldn't possibly be related by blood - you can't help but feel the right people got the job. The more time we spend with John and Jen, the more we believe the two have a biological connection.

With all that said, as polished as the delivery is, this 1995 production is not old enough or clever enough to warrant a revival. The book by Lippa and Greenwald is largely alright, but we do feel cheated that the subplot with John and Jen's violent father never goes anywhere. American history is woven through the story and that adds interest, but what we care about is the characters and the abandonment of such a potentially explosive arc is a strange decision. We end up wondering if the creative duo simply forgot to come back to this.

There is a lot to commend in director Dom O'Hanlon's overall execution, however there's no getting away from the fact that the music and lyrics - also by Lippa and Greenwald - are disappointing, and this has a limiting effect on the production. There are no catchy showtunes, just two singers narrating a storyline by setting it against fairly uninspired melodies. As soon as they take their final bow, we forget every track they've shared with us. I'm not saying a good musical needs lots of earworms, but for there not to be a single memorable tune, it's hard to vouch for how enjoyable this is.

I wouldn't seek out another staging of this musical - there are after all some issues with the source material itself that probably can't be resolved due to licensing. But it's not all doom and gloom, Pinot Productions have shown themselves to be a slick outfit with some extraordinary talent. It's worth seeing John & Jen for the introduction to what this talented company can pull off, but a better choice of show is bound to follow from them.

John & Jen opened on 15th February and runs until 23rd February 2015 at the Drayton Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Gloucester Road (Piccadilly, Circle, District)



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