The spirit of Richard Curtis hangs heavy over Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s musical rom-com, first seen under a different title (The Season) at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate back in 2019. Beyond an enchanted tourist’s eye view of the Big Apple and a nod to the festive season (the show is set in the run-up to the Christmas holidays, cue knitwear and fake snow), it’s not easy to understand why this two-hander has now been disinterred as the Kiln’s end-of-year show, except maybe as a vehicle for Sam Tutty, in his first theatrical role since his WhatsOnStage and Olivier Award-winning turn as the West End’s Evan Hansen.
In all honesty, except for losing the American accent, Tutty isn’t all that different here, this time playing Dougal, a young Englishman arriving in New York for the first time to attend the wedding of the father he’s never met. He’s still goofily charming with a singing voice like butter, and people who fell in love with him in the earlier show will surely fall in love with him all over again here. Unfortunately though, where Dear Evan Hansen had some real grit and specificity, the writing here is woolier, requiring Tutty mainly to bounce between Tigger-ish enthusiasm and wide-eyed ‘little boy lost’ posturing. He gets to explore darker territory in the second half as Dougal faces the ramifications of having a father indifferent to his existence, but the character is sketchily drawn to the extent that it’s hard to get emotionally invested…and then it’s back to winsomely cute for the finale.
Opposite him, Dujonna Gift finds real depth in Robin (it’s unclear if that’s a festive pun), the sister of the (much younger) African American woman Dougal’s Dad is marrying, unwillingly despatched to JFK to pick up her eager new English sort-of relative, and to Brooklyn to collect the wedding cake of the title. Gift invests this discontented, probably heartbroken young woman with an authentic world-weariness, an underlying sweetness and some killer comedy timing. Some of the finest moments in Tim Jackson’s production centre on the contrast between Tutty’s hyperactivity and Gift’s detached, wry observation. She gets some genuinely funny lines, and exhilaratingly negotiates the rangy demands of the score.
Not even Gift’s undoubted star quality can do much about the uneven changes in attitude (one minute Robin’s trying desperately to divest herself of the puppyish Dougal, the next she’s dragging him around the city on a credit card-battering shopping and sightseeing tour) or that a fairly important plot point is thrown away so perfunctorily near the end that anybody who had a momentary lapse in concentration could easily miss it. There are plot holes that in isolation don’t jar too much but collectively look like sloppy storytelling: why did Dougal’s Dad leave his Mum, and how did he become a millionaire? Why hasn’t Robin visited her grandmother in over a year (she’s only in Flatbush)? Why’s her sister so unpleasant? Actually, in all fairness, we do get an answer to that last one.
In creating a musical tribute to some of the great NYC-based romantic screen comedies, Barne and Buchan often lose sight of the fact that the plots of those movies, however preposterous, had their own interior logic that ultimately ensured goosebumps and the odd tear from wrapt audiences. Here, the plotting is as ploddingly literal as the show’s new title, and the characters sing about their hopes, aspirations and isolation with generalised, colourless material that what should be heartrending comes across as inconsequential, despite the redemptively energetic efforts of the cast.
A notable exception to that is a nicely judged second act solo for Dougal where he calls his Mum in England while about to go into the wedding. It’s gentle, humorous and quietly touching, and Tutty delivers it exquisitely. Elsewhere, the music is an eclectic mix of traditional show tunes, pop, rap, patter, and a pile-up of ballads… it’s an attractive if undistinguished collection of songs, most of which could be slotted seamlessly into any other middle-of-the-road contemporary musical. The lyrics are sometimes witty, and rhyme effortlessly, which makes a nice change from certain other recent new tuners.
Soutra Gilmour’s perpetually revolving set of luggage stacked up to resemble the New York skyline looks impressive initially but becomes somewhat cumbersome, leaving the two actors little room to move about, and never satisfyingly transforms (dropping a wobbly chandelier in to suggest a suite at the Ritz looks less like chic minimalism and more like a dearth of imagination). It’s a rare misstep from this usually wonderful designer, and Jack Knowles’s lighting and Tony Gayle’s sound design do more of the heavy lifting in terms of conveying the excitement of the city that never sleeps.
Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) is perfectly watchable but it never feels like there’s enough at stake, or that this is a story that needed to be told with songs. It’s pleasant but it lacks edge and substance, and we don’t get sufficient information about the two strangers to really invest in them. What might have been charming for about eighty minutes feels a bit overstretched across two hours plus interval. Still, it establishes Gift as a scintillating new leading lady, and Tutty fans will have an absolute ball.