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Review Round-up: Do Critics Love Kolvenbach Song?

By • West End
Irish screen star Cillian Murphy made his West End debut alongside Hollywood’s Neve Campbell, Michael McKean and Kristen Johnston in the European premiere of romantic comedy Love Song, at the New Ambassadors Theatre on Monday (4 December 2006, following previews from 25 November, See News, 13 Oct 2006).

John Kolvenbach’s play, directed by John Crowley, focuses on oddball Beane (Murphy). His well-meaning sister Joan (Johnston) and brother-in-law Harry (McKean) try and make time for him in their busy lives, but no one can get through. After Beane’s apartment is burgled, Joan is baffled to find her brother blissfully happy and tries to unravel the story behind Beane's mysterious new love Molly (Campbell).

First night critics were divided about the merits of the piece, generally awarding either two or four stars. They said the play is a cross between a run-of-the-mill sit-com and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with darker elements and the story of Harvey thrown into the mix. While some found the ideas intriguing, others found the play's messages confusing and didn’t warm to the characters. However, all reviewers enjoyed the performances of the starry cast, and praised Crowley’s slick direction, while one said it is the best play to hit the West End this year.


  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “This is an odd, intriguing little play…. it is so beautifully acted in John Crowley’s production that impatience gives way to absorption. Cillian Murphy’s bearded, introverted Beane becomes a transfigured eccentric. The play is spun from deft, often very funny, shards of dialogue and a sort of embarrassingly precise detail…. Murphy is a perfect study in suspended animation. Neve Campbell as Molly displays the right urchin, playful qualities that incorporate mischievous criminal tendencies without condoning them.... As Kolvenbach demonstrated in his On An Average Day… he does write stuff actors can fashion into good theatrical performances. Joan and Harry are delightfully played by two visiting American actors with solid credentials and several Emmy and Grammy awards between them. Kristen Johnston is like a young Kathleen Turner, a really sharp actress with an earthy presence and lethal comic timing. Michael McKean looks a little like Tim Pigott-Smith, with the same sort of understated technical assurance. Crowley’s production, very well designed by Scott Pask, and lit by Howard Harrison, is full of love rock songs on the soundtrack that comment ironically on Beane’s predicament and help along a short, ninety-minute play (no interval) that sticks in the memory.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (2 stars) – “Do you remember Elwood P Dowd? He was the crazy drunk who imagined he was accompanied by a 6ft rabbit in Mary Chase's Harvey. Well, the hero of this new 90-minute play by John Kolvenbach suffers comparable delusions. Everyone's entitled to his fantasies, but I'm surprised to find such attenuated whimsy from Chicago's hard-headed Steppenwolf Theatre…. Admittedly Kolvenbach's play has a few flicks of wit and an arch playfulness: Cillian Murphy's wild-eyed, straggle-bearded Beane wrestles amusingly with a multiple-choice quiz, and there's a nice moment when Michael McKean as his brother-in-law confesses to sexual arousal from the aroma of cantaloupe melons. But behind the play lurks that reverence for madness and delusion that runs through a lot of American drama…. John Crowley's production is deftly designed by Scott Pask…. I have no quarrel with the performances – Neve Campbell's briskly invasive Molly, and Kristen Johnston's domineering Joan. But Molly and Beane's love-chat only strives for lyricism; and when the illusory heroine cries "Death to literalism", I began to yearn for the attentiveness to the actual that once characterised American theatre. This is Harvey for hipsters with a burglar replacing a bunny.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (4 stars) – Nightingale also compared the play to Harvey, but far more favourably: “For Elwood P Dowd, the affable drunk in Mary Chase’s Harvey, the imaginary companion that brought salvation was the vast rabbit of the title. For Cillian Murphy’s Beane, the scraggy loser at the centre of John Kolvenbach’s equally funny but more serious Love Song, it’s Neve Campbell’s Molly… who arrives in his apartment exuding all the truculence that poor passive Beane can’t let himself express or even feel…. At first the play struck me as a superior sitcom, or Neil Simon pastiche, or maybe a watered-down rerun of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…. Yet Love Song is also a play about urban ennui…. There’s a level at which Love Song is depressing, suggesting as it does that in our world happiness is to be found only in fantasy…. And Kolvenbach adds to the slight sense of sentimentality by failing to suggest that Molly liberates Beane’s hidden aggression as well as his thwarted capacity for joy. Yet this is an intelligent play with a wise ending and, thanks to John Crowley’s direction, a crisp, well-acted one too.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (2 stars) – “Producer Sonia Friedman valiantly battles to save straight plays from being edged out of a West End where theatreowners crave musicals. I doubt, though, whether her latest import… will ring many bells. The play's blush-makingly trite idea, which the author's robust humour and bursts of poetic lyricism make more acceptable, is that love from Neve Campbell's monotonously aggressive burglar, Molly, can restore Cillian Murphy's chronically introverted Beane to normal life, behaviour and feelings…. I was never really hooked…. Murphy's bearded, semi-detached looking Beane gives a performance of such riveting poignancy that he tended to make me gloss over the ruminative silliness of Love Song's contentions. Murphy beautifully captures both this bemused mental state and Beane's excited loquacious joy in sight of his fantasy girlfriend…. His transformation, whether magic or whimsical, is not the stuff of drama in John Crowley's stylish production.”

  • Sheridan Morley in the Express – “The problem with John Kolvenbach’s new Love Song at the New Ambassadors is that it can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up into a fully-fledged play. It starts out as what could well be the promising pilot for a TV sitcom about a couple of amiably squabbling adults and her thoroughly eccentric younger brother, played in a masterly display of lonely disillusion and alienation by Cillian Murphy… and Neve Campbell… playing an oddball girlfriend who matches Murphy eccentricity for eccentricity. It eventually becomes clear that this is a play about the nature of reality itself…. But through a sequence of (usually) quickfire duologues, the director John Crowley has to carve a path which takes in comedy and sadness, love and loathing, reality and fantasy and this in 90 no-interval minutes is no easy task. We are in an American domestic wilderness here, and though the cast navigate it admirably, the terrible truth is that you can never quite care about any of them enough to have it matter whether they end up happy or sad, lonely or loved, in the real world or one of their own fantasy…. the play drifts around, as do its central characters, in search of a defining theme, and it’s one that we can never quite hear in the song.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “While it's true that musicals have dominated the West End in 2006, drama has actually fared surprisingly well…. This encouraging trend continues with John Kolvenbach's outstanding Love Song, cannily cast by the producer Sonia Friedman, and unmistakably announcing itself as one of the best new plays of the year… by turns funny, touching and profound…. The play's central character, Beane (the tremendous Cillian Murphy), is one of life's weirdos…. But then, suddenly, miraculously, our hero falls in love, with a mysterious, punky and equally troubled young woman called Molly whom he discovers burgling his flat. The silent, suffering Beane, who in Murphy's nervily compelling performance looks like a traumatised Christ, suddenly becomes vocal and full of beans, embracing life with fierce pleasure as he vociferously celebrates the joy of sex. And his happiness rubs off on his workaholic sister, until now happiest when making office interns cry, and on her husband. From seeming like an incipient George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, drinking like fish and quarrelling, the married couple rediscover their own passion and love for each other. All this might sound mawkish and sentimental, but in John Crowley's beautifully judged and splendidly acted production it proves both richly comic and deeply touching…. If this smashing, compassionate new play fails to take the town, then there really will be cause for concern in the West End.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell


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