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Review: Fiver (Southwark Playhouse)

Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees' fanciful new musical opens at Southwark Playhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A shot from the production of Fiver
© Danny with a camera

This is an exceptional time for new British musicals: Jamie in the West End forever, Six queens embarking on world domination, the return of delightful Adrian Mole, Spitlip's Operation Mincemeat marrying edgy with popular, and soaringly beautiful The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button at Southwark. It's been one good thing after another of late.

Southwark Playhouse scores another bullseye with Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees' fanciful, deceptively sophisticated meditation on what happens to the humble five pound note as it is exchanged from hand to hand. It sounds tooth-grindingly whimsical as a concept but ends up being an unexpectedly accurate, bracing look at contemporary London. With terrific songs.

Think about it: the same bank note could end up in the palm of an aristocrat or a vagrant, as well as inhabitants of every other societal strata in between. It's a delicious premise and Fiver explores many (too many) of the possibilities. The result is a sometimes confusing but always engaging amalgam of song cycle and social commentary, taking in baby showers, marriage proposals, psychological disorders, tricky family relationships, homelessness, obsession, lost loves, funerals, much else. The writing is pithy, funny, occasionally incredibly moving. Not all of London life is here, but there's plenty, probably took much to take in at one viewing.

The numbers are diverse, haunting and breathtaking. There's rap, soft rock, ballads, patter songs, rousing chorales, percussive anthems. The opening, as Ellison's adorable guitar-strumming busker-cum-narrator introduces himself and the rest of the cast, feels like a Londonised, smaller scale In The Heights, with a similar sense of exhilaration. Ellison is a charming, sweet voiced storyteller.

If the episodic nature of the piece means it's sometimes hard to engage with individual characters, the melodic, poppy, smartly constructed songs pierce the heart in unexpected ways.

The performers are magnificent. Hiba Elchikhe exquisitely delivers a number about getting her onstage partner to talk about his deceased brother that will resonate with anybody who has suffered bereavement. Daniel Buckley, proving yet again that he is bona fide star material, gets a stunningly beautiful proposal song to his intended bride that verges on the rapturous. He also performs a bluesy, heartwarming aria of joy as a homeless guy who gets given a coffee and a fiver during the same morning that makes you grin from ear to ear while fighting back tears.

Luke Bayer has the most difficult job being cast against type in roles like a middle aged Dad and school bully but makes intelligent acting choices, and sings gorgeously. Aoife Clesham displays real comedy chops and diva vocals in a number of roles but really brings the house down with an 11 o'clock number for a rejected girlfriend making an ill advised cellphone call that would not disgrace Sondheim at his most savage. She nails it, thrillingly.

The show's foremost problem is that, as the common denominator in each vignette, a five pound note is a tiny object so not always easy to see and unless you're watching carefully, you may not understand how scenes and characters relate to each other as the note gets passed around. Lees directs and does beautiful work delineating individual characters and relationships, but could work on the blocking which is pitched to centre, when the seating is on three sides. The sound design needs attention too, as the wonderful band tends to drown out the singers in vital moments.

These quibbles don't detract from the fact that this is a blazingly impressive and diverse new score, full of character, invention and melody. I can't wait for the cast album.

Lots of people couldn't get seats for Benjamin Button during its last few weeks at this same venue. Fiver will go the same way. Don't be like those people, book for it now. You'll thank me. But most importantly you'll have a wonderful time. I'm definitely going back for more. Fiver is a true original.