As one of the characters in Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days points out, her Manhattan is not a Gershwin Manhattan. And yet the soundtrack of her city is not entirely unfamiliar either; it’s literate and witty and inward-looking, full of lyrics about Virginia Woolf, the pairing of red wine with fish and the labyrinthine floor-plan of the Met Museum. It’s well-read and tinged with angst, full of echoes of Jason Robert Brown, Jonathan Larson and Michael John LaChiusa. But while there’s a strong sense of having visited this place before, its characters are recognisable in a good way and it contains a decided emotional charge, balancing out cynicism with sentiment – though at times veering too much towards the latter.
Ordinary Days is a song cycle made up of two New York stories that touch each other without intersecting. Claire and Jason (played by Julia Atherton and Daniel Boys ) are a young couple who finally decide to take the plunge and move in together, but instead of drawing them closer together, this only accentuates the distance between them. Deb is a grad student who’s been so busy running away from the cul-de-sac she grew up on that she’s lost sight of what’s she’s running towards. When her lost thesis notes find their way into the hands of artist’s assistant, Warren, he views the event as kismet, a fated moment, while she just wants the damn things back so she can appease her professor.
The closer Jason tries to get to Claire the more she withdraws. Atherton and Boys have a crabby chemistry which they milk on their duets, particularly during the snippy passive-aggressive back and forth of ‘Fine’. And Atherton demonstrates just how skilled a performer she is when tackling the show’s big emotional number, ‘I’ll Be Here’; this is a song that could so easily have come across as mawkish, as manipulative, and yet in her hands it’s delicate and devastating, a genuinely moving moment.
Alexia Khadime, as Deb, and Lee William-Davis, as Warren have slightly less to play with. Khadime’s sweetly soaring voice stands in marked contrast with her character’s fractious personality and she’s gifted with – and revels in – the funniest lines; William-Davis is also endearing though he doesn’t quite nail the needy geekiness of Warren.
Sometimes the writing becomes bogged down with cliché –there’s a riff about overly complicated coffee ordering which feels tired out before it’s finished – but director Adam Lenson keeps things light. He knows how to play up the musical’s qualities, having staged it at the Finborough Theatre in 2008 prior to this restaging in the similarly sized Trafalgar Studio 2. Indeed space is something of an issue here. While the studio allows for a superb degree of intimacy (with both the performers and with the audience – you could hear each teary sniffle as the show hit its emotional crescendo), it’s also constrictive. With the musicians on stage, the limited floor space is limited further and the performers have little room for manoeuvre, especially when entering and exiting. The final visual flourish, the moment that unites the two stories, also loses some of its power as a result – if ever a scene needed a higher ceiling, it’s this one.
Alistair Turner’s set is a collection of slightly scuffed white cubes, a basic reproduction of the New York skyline which also double as a set of shelves on which objects can be placed; this twinning is particularly apt as this is a musical much concerned with our personal debris, the things we hold on to and the things we choose to let go.