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Tasting Notes at Southwark Playhouse – review

Charlie Ryall and Richard Baker's new musical continues until 27 August

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Nancy Zamit and Sam Kipling in Tasting Notes
© Chris Marchant

It appears to be "Weird Musicals Month" at Southwark Playhouse. While a dramatis personae of thrillingly voiced single-celled organisms all named Jan cavort, connive and fall in love in the jaw-droppingly bizarre Yeast Nation in the larger auditorium, Richard Baker and Charlie Ryall's intermittently inspired headscratcher of a chamber musical has taken up residence in the smaller space.

At the outset, Tasting Notes seems like a small-scale charmer, set in a contemporary London wine bar populated by reasonably familiar characters passing through, or tethered to, this comforting metropolitan watering hole trying to make sense of their less than ideal lives. Ryall's book is more ambitious than that, however, presenting the same tragically eventful day from six different perspectives.

The show runs the risk of shooting itself in the foot from the get-go though by giving the first tranche of storytelling to arguably the most engaging character: Nancy Zamit's lovable bar proprietress LJ is a vivid, caring figure, forever making concessions to her flaky staff and clientele, to the detriment of her own well being. Zamit imbues her with a strength and kindness that grows more compelling with each retelling of the bittersweet central tale.

If LJ reads as a well-rounded, relatable character, the others have more of a struggle to achieve credibility, each defined by a somewhat clichéd personality trait or personal setback but little else: waitress Maggie (played by book writer and lyricist Charlie Ryall) is an out-of-work actress with a failed marriage behind her; Eastern European kitchen worker Eszter (a winningly intense Wendy Morgan) is preoccupied with her wayward adult son, Stephen Hoo's Joe is a convivial alcoholic, and Sam Kipling's über-camp, hedonistic George finds it hard to connect. Each performer inhabits their character with considerable conviction and mines the somewhat flavourless writing for more pathos and humour than it probably deserves. Too many of the plot points – a troubled mother and son relationship, the aftermath of a homophobic hate attack – end up as non sequiturs, adding little to the overall impact of the piece.

Niall Ransome probably has the hardest role as a blandly likeable, feline-loving barman who appears to have been created solely as a romantic interest for the emotionally adrift Maggie, at least until the authors give him a risible, wildly improbable melodramatic volte face near the end of the show. He's also saddled with a toe-curling solo number about the superiority of cats to humans, "Better Than People", that may be intended to come across as cute and quirky but ends up creepy and embarrassing. Ransome delivers heroically good work under the circumstances.

Re-telling the same story multiple times from different viewpoints is an intriguing idea and Tasting Notes repeatedly finds inventive ways to engage the audience in this unconventional storytelling. Too often though, the moments of wit or genuine emotional engagement in the script are scuppered by a Muzak-like score that is at best unmemorable and at worst downright inept: there is a particularly wince-inducing gay disco number at the top of the second half delivered by Kipling in an ear-splitting Jimmy Somerville-style countertenor, that defies comprehension.

There are few moments in Shelley Williams's over-long staging where Tasting Notes justifies why these characters should be singing their feelings. Mostly the songs just stop the pedestrian but watchable book scenes. Given that most of the acting is accomplished and sensitive but the singing is often alarmingly pitchy, one can't help feeling the show would be better off losing the songs altogether and trimming down to a ninety-minute one act format, with a drastically rethought denouement.

As it stands, the structure is too flimsy to cope with the dark elements – alcoholism, chronic loneliness, potential suicide – that the creators are determined to graft onto it, and a weak musical score doesn't help. As a soap operatic character-driven piece with some rather lovely observations about urban life and the pretensions people adopt around fine wine, it works pretty well; as a musical it comes across as a bit corked.