Craig Adams’ new musical Lift is about proximity and distance – so a fitting ode to contemporary London, a city where we are all tightly crammed together, yet less connected than ever. His eight characters only come together briefly – for the minute-long lift journey from platform to exit at Covent Garden tube station – but Adams wants to explore the interconnectivity of such disparate strangers.
Staged as part of Soho Theatre’s admirable ongoing commitment to new British musicals, Lift is only partially successful in achieving its ambitions. That said, there’s certainly much to enjoy, from a likeable ensemble cast, catchy (if not overly memorable) songs and plenty of nods to day-to-day life in London, from references to fancying someone on the tube to the fact that the cast are reading today’s copy of Metro. The similarities between the characters’ lives is cleverly played out in echoed phrases, and there are some nice details, such as when an online chat between two characters (their avatars Ellie Kirk and Robbie Towns playing out the stereotypes of online dating with sly, knowing wit) becomes ever-more accidentally revealing. As Oscar Wilde said, give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth, and here the mask of digital deception allows the expression of vulnerabilities that are hidden in real life, whether by Luke Kemper’s office wide-boy, who makes jokes to his mates about his online sex chats but secretly yearns for the woman he has lost, or Jonny Fines’ gay man, afraid to admit his sexuality in his home town while indulging it to the max in London, hiding his own insecurities through thoughtless, casual sex.
The production is also very funny in places, though the humour tends towards the crass and slightly obvious (including the obligatory laughing at American tourists) rather than any particular sharpness of the writing. The performances are sympathetic throughout: from Julie Atherton’s jilted teacher to Cynthia Erivo as the world weary lap dancer with whom she tries to find solace, from Nikki Davis-Jones’ mousey secretary to George Maguire’s smitten busker, but while you can – to some degree – empathise with their various emotional dilemmas, there’s never quite enough momentum to keep you engaged, and the writing relies heavily on stereotypes: it’s particularly disappointing that in portraying a city as diverse as London, the only non-white character is a stripper. And while Adams has stated his intent as examining the loves (lost and found) of Londoners, that in itself feels a slightly forced conceit: as my companion to the show pointed out afterwards, if it was really a piece reflecting modern city life, there’d be an awful lot more songs in it about work stress and money, which is probably what most of us are thinking about when we’re doing our daily commute.
The staging, while stylish – designer Georgia Lowe making a virtue of sparseness with a series of illuminated, moveable frames – is slightly problematic and the necessarily crowded stage occasionally makes it difficult to see what is happening. But at a tightly directed 75 minutes (director Steven Paling never allowing the pace to flag) the production at least doesn’t outstay its welcome. There are times when Lift feels as disposable as that daily copy of Metro, but it somehow makes a virtue of its own ephemerality.
Read the Exeunt interview with Lift’s composer Craig Adams.