This must be a first in musical theatre: an opening, very fast patter number in which a woman in a housecoat pummels at a lump of dough. It’s not exactly Mrs Lovett stacking up her pies in Sweeney Todd, and it’s not remotely Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers, but there is something of the desperate dowdy housewife in Louise Gold’s powerful performance that keeps you wondering, for a while at least, what might be the problem here.
Next Door's Baby proves still-born, alas, a rather too effortful and uninspired show about neighbours, the friendship of single mothers and a less than exciting bonny baby contest (the babies are played by swaddled dolls) that peters out before it ever really peters in.
The book by Bernie Gaughan – derived from her own radio play – sets up a domestic tension between the O’Brien and Hennessy households in a Dublin suburb in the 1950s. Matthew Strachan has provided music and lyrics that are certainly competent, using triple rhythms and catalogue songs to break up the plodding dialogue and enable each character to have a good sing. But nothing soars – and even that’s putting it too strongly – until the four main women are joined in reflective harmony just before the end.
The quartet are Louise Gold’s harassed, embittered Mrs O’Brien and her drudge of a depressed daughter, Orla (Riona O'Connor), who finally breaks free; and Brenda Longman’s snobbish, over-dressed Mrs Hennessy and her daughter Miriam (Emily Sills), who’s hiding the truth of a violent marriage to a drunken American (Peter Basham, a good name for a wife-beater).
The Hennessys have a secret, too, which explains the edginess around the kitchen table. Mrs O’Brien’s a widow and she has a family of curiously unmatched children: not only the sulky Orla, but also Stephen Carlile’s sleek elderly juvenile, Vincent Sheils’ irritatingly manic, short-trousered Larry (who keeps dive-bombing off chairs and table; why doesn’t he just sit still and pick his nose, for heaven’s sake?), and Clare Louise Connolly’s brilliant, button-faced little Sheila.
Paul Prescott’s production – with another spot-on, detailed period setting of furniture and costumes by Sam Dowson at this address – is about 20 minutes too long, but the set-pieces of one family spying on another, and the communal hymn-singing in church are well handled.
Carlile shines in an irrelevant “I could have been a mountie” number and Gold is touching in both her lullaby and marriage memorial items. But overall, despite a sudden lurch into Eugene O’Neill territory, the piece lacks any telling focus and remains a dull play with a collection of so-so songs.
- Michael Coveney