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Steve at Seven Dials Playhouse – review

The refurbished central London space has opened!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jenna Russell and David Ames
© The Other Richard

The newly refurbished Actor's Centre near Cambridge Circus – now christened the Seven Dials Playhouse – feels quite corporate in the foyer, despite the playing of Sondheim tunes over the speakers. Inside the performance space, however, designer Lee Newby has transformed the area into a replica of Joe Allen's, a famous theatre restaurant in New York (we have one here too in London, where you can get money off food after the performance if you show your ticket). The russet brick walls and framed photos of stars and posters of musicals gone by are familiar to anyone who has dined there, and there are even seats at dinner tables for the audience to sit at to get even closer to the action.

The Seven Dials Playhouse's first show is the European Premiere of Steve, Mark Gerrard's play which recently ran off-Broadway, here directed by Andrew Keates. The narrative concerns Steve (David Ames), a former chorus boy who now lives as a stay-at-home dad with his partner, also called Stephen (Joe Aaron Reid). Through a series of conversations at Joe Allen's, coffee shops and a hospital canteen, we peek into the lives of both the Steves and their friends as they muddle through questions of marriage and monogamy, terminal illness and the meaning of family. The dialogue between the five friends is sharp and effortless, and as you watch you feel welcomed into their decades-long friendship with years of in-jokes and cultural references, from Steel Magnolias to jibes about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Evita. Keates' direction of the first scene helps set this fast pace, ensuring we don't just get a static dinner party scene but one that fizzles and cracks at the right moments, assisted by the turntable the set is positioned on.

Each member of this fine ensemble is excellent. Reid as Stephen delivers an excellent, frenetic monologue in the latter half of a show where he is stuck between wholesome phone conversations and sordid texts (with the picture frame screens displaying these messages so the audience can keep up). Giles Cooper and Michael Walters may have smaller roles as the sexually adventurous couple Brian and Matt but make the most of their stage time, injecting the piece with laughs in the final scene, and Nico Conde as the somehow-always-there waiter/barista/dancer/volunteer Esteban welcomes us to the show with a certain whimsy and knowingness of a Narrator.

But this is Ames' and Jenna Russell's play, of course. The pair are beautiful to watch together, old friends who have been with each other through thick and thin. As the terminally ill Carrie, Russell plays the role with dignity: she is the friend you'd go to if you needed frank advice and a mild roasting. Ames' central performance as Steven sees him question his desirability in the wake of infidelity and whether he can keep up with a world where relationships have changed so much. He is, in a way, a version of Bobby (from Company), and Ames provides a really touching performance of a man figuring things out, equal measures emotional and funny. The final scene between Ames and Russell in particular is very moving.

For a play titled Steve it makes sense that it is heaped with references to the late, great Stephen Sondheim, particularly Into the Woods. It figures that a group of former performers would continually reference the man's work and reach for it when they themselves are going through a struggle. Placed in the corner of the ‘restaurant', musical director Ben Papworth plays the piano in between scenes, scoring (by Max Pappenheim) the show with appropriate Sondheim tunes, such as "I Know Things Now" and the opening to Sunday in the Park with George. In the space, it sounds beautiful.

Despite the auditorium being quite cramped and warm, this 90-minute straight-through play whizzes by, full to the brim with (vodka) stingers and heart. I'll drink to that!

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