A Song Cycle for Soho is an ambitious and entertaining concept that unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to its promise. The idea of tracing Soho’s history through music is an intriguing one, but the resulting song cycle suffers from a lack of narrative context. The more serious numbers fare worst (you’d have to know the history of the area fairly well to get that ‘Do Not Linger’ refers to the cholera outbreak in 1854, for example), and the production occasionally feels muddled, with little sense of pattern to the order of the songs or the events they address.
Book writer Andrew Brinded and director Simon Grieff sought to bring together a number of composers to illuminate the different scenes, instead of one linking voice, but while this combination of various songwriters adds variety to the mix, it emphasises the lack of cohesion and makes the production feel even more like a loosely strung together revue.
Although the four performers are clearly talented, they are not helped by the venue’s poor acoustics: it’s a nice touch to have the drink-soaked number ‘Old Compton Street’ sung by the women at the bar, but from my end of the (relatively small) space I could barely make out what they were singing, and any time the actors strayed into the audience, their voices were quickly lost in the crowd. The comedy numbers work best, requiring no context and being for the most part smartly written: Claire Moore’s turn as the defiant moll of Ronnie Kray in ‘Self Respect’ is a joy, lifting the show so much I think it should have been rolled out earlier; she also stands out as a lecherous cougar in ensemble number ‘Mummy Knows Better.’ ‘It’s What He Would Have Wanted’ sees the group take a corpse on one last raucous night on the town and is another comic highlight. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel that the show would have been far more enjoyable had it played the whole night for laughs, as the performers all have decent comic timing and know how to work the room: Niamh Perry was a deadpan delight, while James Gillan was at his best playing the acerbic young gay about town, mobile phone constantly in hand even as he flirts from the stage with admirers in the audience. Only Michael Cantwell really gets to grips with the serious numbers, his expressive features lending a pathos to proceedings that the songs themselves often fail to deliver.
This is a real shame because it feels like, with a little more work, there could be a decent show in there somewhere: jokes about Grindr and living next door to a friendly crackhead keep it bang up to date, and there are times when it does manage to portray the Soho we were sitting in, with all its joys, its characters and its tragedies; the Soho where anonymous, homesick Polish girls wait tables and wonder ‘Does Anybody Know My Name?’, and boozed up mates are out on the pull looking for the beautiful people, where the remnants of the area’s history linger at every corner, clinging on through every wave of gentrification and reinvention.