As a new British musical based on original material rather than simply a story tacked onto a jukebox of recognizable hits, Rob Young’s Ex had me onside from the start. This enjoyably salty, profanity-laden tale of two ex-lovers re-examining their past lays its cards on the table early: after all, when a production starts with a song called ‘Oh Fuck’, you know you’re not watching We Will Rock You. (As the actress who plays Ruby, Amy Booth-Steel, said in an earlier interview with Exeunt, “I think that gives you a good idea of where it’s going” – and that’s not down the ‘night out for all the family’ route.)
In fact, if Ex has a lineage, it is the TV comedy: with its blunt, foul-mouthed Northern heroine and her hapless, waster lover, this has the feel of a BBC 3 sitcom, covering up a slight lack of polish with a succession of filthy laughs – you can see this show going down well with the Two Pints of Lager/Him & Her crowd. There’s certainly a lot to applaud in this approach: the juxtaposition of down to earth humour and music works well, and many of the songs are genuinely funny, feeling integral to the story rather than a tacked on gimmick. Some of the laughs may be cheap, but they are plentiful, and the first half particularly, when Jack and Ruby look back over their relationship, feels naturalistic and convincing.
Alex Marker’s bright, brash set – the wine bar where Jack and Ruby first met – is a perfect complement to the action, and the performances are a delight: Gerard Carey plays slacker Jack with enough charm and vulnerability that you can see why women are drawn to him, even if he is a car crash of a boyfriend, and Booth-Steel has the comic timing of a young Victoria Wood. As Jack’s statuesque new lover Claire, Siobhan Dillon is a pleasing mix of strength and fragility that makes her more than just a blonde bombshell, and Simon Thomas brings a touch of steel to his role as the swoonsome Keith that stops him being just the too-nice guy destined to lose out to the amiable waster.
There are faults with the show, but these feel like they could be ironed out with a little work. At just over two hours, it’s too long: it would have worked better at a pacey 90 minutes without interval; this would also solve the problem of its slightly uneven two-act structure, which spends a leisurely first act getting Jack and Ruby back together, then has to cram all of the real action into a crowded second half. Rob Young and Ross Lorraine’s songs are funny, but they aren’t particularly memorable, and the singing can be patchy: giving Ruby an accent that could peel spuds may add comic value when she talks, but it makes her singing hard on the ears. Director Tricia Thorns keeps the action light but the tone veers wildly: having got used to the broad comic brushstrokes of most of the numbers, it’s hard to find the sincere songs convincing, and while the script has very real teeth (Jack’s final insult to Claire is so demolishingly brutal it drew gasps) it takes too long to reveal them. Likeable as Ruby is, her romantic prevarications border on irritating, and I struggled to see how she could manage to make not one but two men so enamoured of her. But I’m picking holes; these are minor quibbles in what is often an admirably original production: Ex is fresh, filthy, funny and engaging, and I’d like to see more of its type.