Review: Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

A new rock musical about the Brontë sisters

Siobhan Athwal, Molly Lynch and Natasha Barnes in Wasted
Siobhan Athwal, Molly Lynch and Natasha Barnes in Wasted
© Helen Maybanks

The adage about the close proximity of madness to genius has seldom been so convincingly demonstrated as here by Christopher Ash and Carl Miller's Brontës musical treatment. Following hard on the high heels of the equally anachronistic Six, this bewildering but beautiful mess of a show is as much rock concert with a narrative through-line as traditional musical: a gig-sical, maybe? While those Six queens are all cheek and sass, these literary sisters are more snarl and bite but, in their own edgy way, equally lovable.

This dark, rollicking piece is as far removed from your average musical as Sarah Kane's plays are from Noël Coward's. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Spring Awakening but the attack recalls the pain and fury of the original Hedwig And The Angry Inch. The contrast between the hard scrabble existences of the Brontës and the enriching literary legacy left behind is conveyed with a searing, moving simplicity.

Adam Lenson's playful production astonishes on many levels. Front and centre: the dazzlingly committed cast. Natasha Barnes carries the lioness's share of the script as Charlotte, who outlived her siblings and achieved a conventional marriage despite her literary leanings. Barnes brilliantly reconfirms herself as an actress of outstanding depth, investing the sensible but passionate young woman with a self-deprecating wryness and bright-eyed kindness that splits wide open when she sings: then she unleashes a wild but sweet torrent of formidably controlled frustration and anarchic abandon. She is movingly impressive as the family's increasingly sad trajectory plays out, and gets the biggest laugh of the evening with the throwaway line "f**k off, I'm writing Jane Eyre".

Molly Lynch's doe-eyed, self-effacing Anne is a vocally stunning heartbreaker, going from rocked-out emotionalism to impressive classical soprano with jaw-dropping ease. Matthew Jacobs Morgan gives drug-addled, deluded brother Branwell a fine voice and an irresistible charm that almost expiates his bizarre behaviour.

Siobhan Athwal's quirky, bitterly funny Emily is pitched at the junction between lunacy and rapture. She's a physical manifestation of an unsound mind, suggesting Emily might have been an inspiration for Jane Eyre's Mrs Rochester. At first I feared the feral physicality and face-pulling might be too much, but ultimately I found her profoundly touching, her dream-like yet ferocious vocals reminiscent of a young Kate Bush.

These Brontës wear mid-1800s garb but when they let rip musically, it's to punk, emo, progressive rock, thrash metal, even ska, spirituals and country and western, belted into omnipresent hand-held mics while roving spotlights dazzle onlookers. The raucous, ecstatic power of rock music as metaphor for the hardships of unfulfilled artistic endeavour and strife-beset lives is persuasive.

Ash commands a profligacy of musical styles with panache. Nothing sounds like a traditional showtune, but it is a haunting score full of passion, invention and often thunderous excitement. Charlotte's second act cri de cœur "(Extra)ordinary Woman" could have come off a Janis Joplin album, while Anne's twistedly lovely "The Story Of Mrs Collins" is a knockout piece of musical storytelling. This will be a cast album to savour, not least to appreciate Miller's frequently witty lyrics, which sometimes get lost in the muddy sound design.

Joe Bunker's terrific band are as much part of the show as Libby Todd's starkly striking set or Matt Daw and Sam Waddington's exciting lighting. Drummer Nathan Gregory as Emily's beloved dog is a pleasingly bonkers touch.

Anything as iconoclastic as this can't be perfect, and is likely to get up a lot of people's noses, to be honest. The storytelling is sketchy at times and there's a belligerent but inventive weirdness that not everyone will embrace. My advice though is to look at it as music theatre rather than a musical: buckle up and enjoy the thrill ride. As ambitious a step forward in the genre as anything for years, this grittily exhilarating show is essential viewing if you're interested in the future of the British musical.