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CLOSER THAN EVER – Jermyn Street Theatre, London.

closer than ever, jermyn street theatreThere’s no witch, no chocolate factory, no helicopter or revolutionary barricade, just four singers, five doors, a piano and a bass. And yet Closer Than Ever, nestled in the pocket-sized Jermyn Street Theatre, has to be one of the hottest musical theatre tickets in London.

Why? Let’s start with the performers, four talented veterans who have between them led dozens of companies, and who switch easily between warm ensemble work and mesmerising star turns. Then we have the extraordinary material of this song cycle revue: David Shire’s jaunty, jazzy tunes, which turn on a dime into aching laments, beautifully supporting lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr’s droll, perceptive observations of life’s absurdities.

Maltby also directs this affectionate revival of their 1989 off-Broadway hit, which peeks behind the façade of adulthood. There’s a thematic through line, otherwise this is more a collection of New York-set short stories, written in the Nora Ephron mode of confessional wit and wisdom. The best contain delicious twists, knowing winks, and a balance of comic frankness and naked emotional truth.

There are a few which descend into schmaltz, unleavened by Maltby’s biting sarcasm, making the second half drag. ‘There is Something in a Wedding’ and ‘Father of Fathers’, in particular, fall into generalised, almost clichéd sentiment, and the slightly generic tunes begin to blend. But these are anomalous in a refreshingly pragmatic show.

Among the tales of middle age and second marriage, parenting and dating, what’s been endured and what might have been, committed comedienne Issy van Randwyck captures the dichotomy of prim Miss Byrd and her raunchy lunchtime trysts, sizzles in jazz-hot ‘Back on Base’ (with an able assist from bassist A-J Brinkman), and cuts loose with a roar in break-up counter-attack ‘You Wanna Be My Friend’.

Arvid Larsen, in contrast, produces a paean to forbearance through gritted teeth in ‘I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning’, wrings humour from strained restraint in ‘There’, and offers a soulful rendition of ‘If I Sing’ by keeping his delivery heartbreakingly direct. The sensitive accompaniment of pianist Nathan Martin is particularly effective here.

Sophie-Louise Dann occasionally overpowers her cast mates, but lowers her performance to a whisper for the spellbinding ‘Patterns’, ‘Life Story’ and ‘It’s Never That Easy’, offering a master class in storytelling through song. She also brings home feminist seminar ‘The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole’, as a scientist recounting the preferable mating habits of animals.

Graham Bickley is similarly compelling in his rendition of rueful, lovestruck ‘What Am I Doin’?’ and ‘One of the Good Guys’, which seems to fall into the sentimental trap until its sudden burst of longing for the road not taken. He and Dann are screamingly funny as working parents in ‘Fandango’, as are Dann, van Randwyck and Larsen in love triangle ‘She Loves Me Not’, delivering a punchline just through inflection.

There’s strong physical comedy, too, in the screwball horror stories of ‘Dating Again’, and in ‘Three Friends’, which buries cattiness behind false smiles and jazz hands. Yet for all its bitter realism, Closer Than Ever ends on a note of optimism, finding hope in its accumulation of unpredictable experiences. A grown-up message for a grown-up show, which affords its subjects dignity without forgetting that sometimes, the wisest thing you can do is laugh.

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Reviewed 09/05/14/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

8th May – 7th June 2014
Jermyn Street Theatre, London, SW1.

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