When I was a kid my dad used to pretend the pink rug on my bedroom floor was the magic carpet from Aladdin. We’d tonelessly sing ‘A Whole New World’ whilst sat on it, and there was a part of my five-year-old brain that was exhilarated by the terror that maybe, this time, it really would fly out of the window over the rooftops of Croydon. In this respect, Superhero, the new musical from Michael Conley (book), Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics), is correct: in the eyes of their kids, dads do possess magic powers.
The premise of this one man show is a true heart-wrencher. Colin Bradley (Michael Rouse) is a normal dude with a normal divorce, pushed into doing something extraordinary in his quest to see his daughter Emily. He stands before us on Georgia de Grey’s sterile family court set and implores us that ‘Kids need dads, but dads need kids too’. Rouse is a seasoned musical theatre performer with a fantastic versatile voice, and whilst not a dad-bod average bloke, possesses a credible man-child charm. In his first meeting with his new-born daughter he makes the promise to her that no matter what, ‘You Got Me’, with such cave-man fervour that you have to root for him; man has child, man protect child in face of family court and unreasonable ex-wife. Yet, the primal magic of parenting is surely putting someone else’s needs forever before your own, and it’s here that Colin’s devotion starts to sour.
It is admirable that the writers have opted to forgo the easy route and present Colin as the adulterer (albeit by way of a long diversion into Carousel, reinforcing my belief that ‘amateur dramatics’ must soon become an option on divorce forms). Rather than appearing truly sorry, Colin is presented as a kicked puppy, and his ex Christine is cast as a distant and ungrateful career woman who has to endure a ballad of mansplaining (‘Enough’) that she should be satisfied with her life, take him back and generally get on as if nothing has happened.
My biggest issue, however, is that for all his affirmations, Colin’s daughter Emily seems to exist only in her relationship to her father. In ‘All American Dad’ (an otherwise catchy borderline xenophobic rant against his wife’s new boyfriend – complete with fears his influence will turn Emily into a school shooter, or worse, fat) he sings ‘Does he know the name of her imaginary friends? I do, she’s got over forty’. But aside from this brief window into the little girl’s personality, we know nothing of her apart from that she loves her dad and begs for overpriced souvenirs from the gift shop on their sanctioned visits.
The Fathers4Justice movement might be problematic, but the issues they have campaigned for are founded in the passion of men who just want to see their kids. To reduce their story to one of high-profile stunts as dreamt up by depressed drunk dads many tequilas deep, as in musical number ‘Keep it Simple Stupid’, feels dismissive and trite. Admittedly, the high point of the show is the moment where Colin undertakes a protest of his own (cinematically lit by Sam Waddington, who manages to create a Marvel-worthy apparition). But although his rendition of ‘Don’t Look Down’ (awarded 2015 Stiles and Drewe Best New Song) is impassioned, Colin’s lack of self-awareness, attributing blame everywhere but to himself, starts to wear very thin.
I believed that my dad could fly that weird little carpet out of the window because he knew what a gullible kid I was. He also knows I still like Hula Hoops best and that I’m scared of dolphins. Because that’s what makes parents superheroes. They love you, and know you better than you know yourself, half the time. The programme of ‘Superhero’ compares the creating of a new musical to having a child, and perhaps this is Colin’s central issue in his lack of relatability – he is primarily concerned with authorship of his own story.
Superhero is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 22 July 2017. Click here for more details.