“Being in love isn’t always that nice,” observes actress Amy Booth-Steel with good-humoured realism. “It can actually be quite annoying and hard work.” Ex, the new musical comedy in which Booth-Steel is playing one of the leads, typifies the tough and sometimes irritating side of love that often gets ignored by the musical genre. Or, as Booth-Steel rather succinctly puts it, “it’s not all roses”.
Writer Rob Young has deliberately eschewed the idealised romance of traditional musical theatre for his latest show at the Soho Theatre. His heroine is Ruby, played by Booth-Steel, a woman who has found her Mr Right but is still hung up on Mr Wrong. As Ruby and her womanising ex-boyfriend Jack meet to discuss the past, bittersweet reminiscences become the catalyst for confrontations between these two exes and their respective current partners. “All hell breaks loose,” laughs Simon Thomas, who is playing Ruby’s charming new boyfriend Keith.
Ex is not your average musical, Thomas tells me. Unlike the usual formula in which the plot is propelled by the songs, here the text is paramount to the storyline, while the musical numbers offer comment on the action. “It’s almost Brechtian in its style,” Thomas muses. “In part it’s very naturalistic and this naturalism is juxtaposed with the abstract and flamboyant nature of the songs”.
As a new, original British musical not based on any existing material, Ex is already swimming against the dominant tide before its plot even gets moving. As both Booth-Steel and Thomas recognise, there are few new British musicals making it to the stage at present, with Ex offering a relatively rare opportunity for musical theatre actors to build up a new role from scratch.
“Actors want to create new things, so it’s always a gift when you’re given the opportunity to do that,” says Thomas when I question him about the challenge of originating a character. We go on to chat about creative freedom, the challenge of taking over a well-known role and his recent run as Warner in the phenomenally successful Legally Blonde. It is clear that, despite his enthusiasm for the show, he found less artistic flexibility in taking on a role that had already been fleshed out, describing an established production as “a narrow railed track that you have to stick to.”
Booth-Steel agrees that a blank slate is a more rewarding starting point for an actor, citing the lack of creative “boundaries” as the reason for her love of new writing. “I always try to make a character real to me,” she continues, “but when no one else has ever done it before there’s a lot more creativity involved and you can really go for it.” She goes on to share with me that the creative process for Ex is unusually collaborative, with the actors given the freedom to make decisions about their characters that are then incorporated into the writing.