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London Theatre Reviews

(L to R) Joel Montague, Natasha J Barnes, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Gemma Knight-Jones and Daniel Boys/ Ph: Standout Company

TWO HALVES

By JOHN NATHAN

The shift from act one to act two feels unnatural, as it comes with a change in period and change in tone.

This musical by William Finn and James Lapine is, to use a sporting term, a show of two halves. Each was written years apart, with the first, called March of the Falsettos, premiering in 1981 as a one-act song cycle about Marvin, who, having belatedly accepted his sexuality, leaves his wife Triny, and 12-year-old son Jason (except for weekends) for his male lover.

In 1990 the show returned as Falsettoland with a second act that moves the action from the 70s to the 80s. But the show’s evolution does not stop there. As Falsettos, the show ran at the Lincoln Centre in 2016 and now in this UK production it arrives at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre The Other Palace, where it ran into a little local controversy because of its Jewishness. 

The show begins with four Jews bitching in a room, or to be more accurate, a song called "Four Jews Bitching in a Room." So from the outset this is a show whose protagonists not only wear their hearts on their sleeves but their Jewishness too. And because of this, some British Jewish theatre practitioners have complained that a show that requires Jewish culture to be conveyed accurately should include Jews among the production’s crew of creatives or its cast. Apparently, there are none in this case. Yet has this resulted in an unconvincing portrayal of Jewish culture or sensibility? I would say not.

The cast in Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s production is perfectly convincing. The charismatic Daniel Boys is suitably self-possessed as Marvin, the man whose newfound needs must be accommodated by his family. The always excellent Laura Pitt-Pulford as his wife Triny treads a line of stoicism and crisis management. And Joel Montague is very funny as Marvin's psychiatrist Mendel, who is at least as neurotic as his patients. Matthew McKenna also deserves a mention. For this performance he stepped into the role of Marvin’s lover Whizzer at the last moment in place of the unwell Oliver Savile, and did a terrific job.

Yet the impression builds that these impressive performances amount to more than these inward-looking characters deserve. Granted, Finn’s Tony-winning score is melodically and lyrically witty. But while you cannot blame people for wanting to be happier than they are, you can blame them – and Finn – for thinking that it is the only thing worth singing about in a long first act. 

In this sung-through show of 41 songs (including reprises) it is not until the second 80s-set act, in which Whizzer contracts a mysterious disease that we now know as AIDS, that it feels as if Marvin, Triny, Whizzer, Mendel and others actually live in the world and not just in their bubble of self-regarding, naval-gazing me-ness.

Perhaps one more iteration of this show is needed – one that pairs down the number of songs in the first act so that it exists as a chamber piece about relationships before it expands into the period and politics of the 80s in the second. In this version it comes too late to drum up much empathy. Because although there is much to admire about this musical, the same cannot be said about the tediously self-interested people who populate it.