Nic Harvey and Rob Green’s The Leftovers is a bold experiment in creating a show without structure. Sheep Soup’s new musical – the first to be commissioned for Curve’s studio – begins in media res, with a group of disparate people in a recording studio, brought together by the shared loss of a woman, Jodie, and aiming to record something in her memory. It ends with the sessions continuing. In between is a self-consciously messy, freeform paean to the experience of making music, and it’s quite wonderful.
The musical memorialisation of Jodie is coordinated by Yaz, Jodie’s best friend and keeper of the flame, who has barely begun processing her feelings. Jim, the manager of the studio, remembers her fondly but hasn’t yet been able to cry. Angie, who they met at the funeral, is an older, estranged friend whose anger towards Jodie hasn’t abated since her death. The three of them have brought in Hayley, Jodie’s favourite singer-songwriter, to help them lay down a track. And into the mix wanders Russ, who dated Jodie while they were traveling thirteen year earlier, and has never quite forgotten her.
The narrative is purposefully aimless. As becomes clear towards the end, the structure of their sessions is based on group therapy
that needs to be open-ended precisely because their grief has no easy conclusion. The drama consists of the five shaking down together, their conflicting attitudes towards Jodie revealing their darkest fears. Yet while there are bust-ups and small revelations, the evening largely consists of these quite fantastic musicians simply trying out ideas, and getting roaring drunk.
The show is about the music, staged in a series of vignettes of taking a riff or line and pursuing it through to a full song. There are miniature narrative arcs holding it together, some of which are more successful than others.
The least well-defined character is Russ, who never really articulates what he is looking for, even if the repeatedly urgent calls from his wife reveal someone deeply unhappy. Jim has no real story either, but is the glue that holds the show together, and his larger-than-life persona and witty one-liners energise the more naturalistic performances elsewhere.
The two men get the show’s best (and simultaneously most redundant) song in ‘The Way Things Used To Be’, a gloriously parodic hymn to the nineties, ranging from All Saints’ skits to a rendition of the ‘Fresh Prince’ rap. And towards the end, as tempers rise, Jim finally bursts into tears in the production’s most cathartic moment.
The three women carry the show’s emotional weight. Hayley is the outlier who didn’t particularly know Jodie, as evident in the cliché-ridden emotional ballad she offers at the start. The group reject her song and decide to instead delve through Jodie’s own writings, through which the chaotic, life-loving, intemperate, deflecting whirlwind who ties these individuals together is revealed.
In ‘Hayley Rides Alone’, Hayley finds and sings Jodie’s review of her show, coming to life as she articulates the joy of her fan’s response. In the final act, however, she discovers a later, caustic review deriding her as a sell-out, and Hayley brokenly reprises her earlier tune. White’s acting performance is subdued and sometimes barely audible – an odd reading of a minor celebrity – but in her folksy, raw songs, she finds her soul, and the spirit to leave her manager.
Yaz and Angie’s double-act pits a former best friend and a current best friend against one another. The older Angie is by turns jealous and protective of Yaz, warning her about over-investment in the fickle Jodie, but is herself unable to let go. Yaz is desperate to do something, but can’t work out precisely what, and the two fight repeatedly. Angie sets out her stall in the extraordinary ‘Punch Bag’, pouring out a blisteringly tirade against the friend who abandoned her when she dared to have a child. Then, as the two women read through Jodie’s angry ramblings, they team up on a blues rock opera that tears down the walls between them.
Around the phenomenal set pieces is a lot of padding that may well capture the tedium of studio time but becomes self-indulgent. There’s an odd ‘how to write a song’ number by Hayley; a curiously incomplete subplot in which Yaz and Russ try to access Jodie’s Facebook; and a long game of ‘I have never’.
The show needs an editor or a dramaturg badly, but Harvey and Green have nevertheless done something quite special by inverting the music-making process and celebrating the raw, local, messy acts of improvisation that are the first step towards full songs. In doing so, and in working with a stellar and sincere cast, they’ve found a beautiful metaphor for the start of healing.
The Leftovers was at Curve, Leicester, until October 28th. For more details, click here.