“Wherever we are in 25 years we’ll come back and create the B side”, so goes the strap line for Midsummer Songs. For those who have ever tried to recreate the past by organising a reunion this production will strike a chord. Is it ever possible to reignite friendships long since faded? If people haven’t kept in regular contact for such a period can they even be regarded as friends? Are reunions ever a good idea?
The back story: six university friends spend a week in a dilapidated barn in Wales, during the course of which they create six songs, record them on a cassette and then hide it in a biscuit tin resolving to meet 25 years to complete the ‘album’. The play is set a quarter of a century later, in the same barn – now a converted holiday home which the friends rent for the weekend – and charts their attempt to complete the ‘album’.
The forty-something characters arrive with anxieties and fears as to the benefit and wisdom of such a get together, but curiosity is a powerful incentive even though these friends now have ‘baggage’ in more ways than one. Bob (Alex Bourne) and Heather’s (Jane Milligan) marriage is failing and his career as a composer of muzak has left him unfulfilled. On seeing Maddy (Yvette Robinson) passions from 25 years ago are rekindled in both of them before Heather – angry, confused and insecure – turns up to confront Bob. Bourne and Milligan convey the pain and anguish of their predicament while Robinson has a presence that captures not only the eye but the ear, especially so when she opens her heart and sings; Bourne also has a solo performance of intense feeling.
Steven (Glenn Carter), a tired, slightly cynical writer, is coming to terms with the knowledge that Lucy’s sick mother is infatuated with him. Both Carter and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, as Lucy, give wonderfully understated, nuanced performances, providing calmer counterpoints within the narrative. Stuart (Adam Keast) the organiser of the weekend, is a failing corporate brand consultant with a dash of ‘little man syndrome’ and Keast’s performance builds to a climax of explosive fury. Peter Peverley’s Spider meanwhile bounds around the stage and fulfils the role of light relief within the party while also displaying a strong vocal talent.
The show is liberally littered with simple, easy on the ear, folksy, country melodies that fit perfectly with the current trend for middle England music festivals and bearded balladeers. Though it should be noted that the only beard on parade here belongs to Phylip Harries, as Dafydd, the Welsh farmer who genially undercuts the outlook of the urban weekenders. Throughout the dialogue is interspersed by ensemble and solo musical numbers and the first act is fast paced, with the characters introduced and paired off. In terms of plot there are few surprises, but then the sun starts to set and things shift.
The second act by contrast is fractured. Again the characters come together in an attempt to write their contributions for the ‘album’. Truths emerge, cracks appear, tensions simmer. New songs emerge, reflecting their experiences, including a beautiful ballad. But as the story reaches its conclusion, there is a sense of unfinished business.
At times it felt as if there was an imbalance between dialogue and song and it did feel as if the original songs – by Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard – would benefit from a little more space to shine. Is the show a musical, a play with songs? It doesn’t really matter: genres are for pigeons to hole up in and the cast are confident and strong of voice. In fact this whole production could successfully be played outside, it could be performed at Latitude without losing any of its power.