nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 21, 2008
The concept of London Cries is quite brilliant: to juxtapose the songs, sketches, and milieu of Victoria Era British Music Hall with the real lives of the London poor who frequented them. So instead of the buoyant but out-of-context jollity of the music hall style that's handed down to us via the likes of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Oliver!, we instead get to really comprehend what all those comic list songs and ballads about hard living really might have meant to those who sang them and those who applauded them. And we get to contemplate what, if anything, has changed in our culture in the intervening century. Do we think any harder nowadays when we appropriate the popular culture of the less fortunate?
London Cries is the brainchild of director/co-author Di Trevis, who adapted its text with celebrated Irish playwright Frank McGuinness from a book called London Labour & The London Poor by Henry Mayhew; the words that Trevis and McGuinness's characters speak here are often those of the 1840s working class people interviewed by Mayhew. With composer Dominic Muldowney and musical director John DiPinto, Trevis has filled her show with authentic music hall numbers, most of which—as Irondale Ensemble Project's executive director Terry Greiss noted on a recent nytheatre.com's podcast—sound completely familiar either though we've never heard them before. (The only exception is the justly famous "Burlington Bertie from Bow," which is inserted as more-or-less a specialty item in the second act.)
The action of London Cries takes place in a music hall, which is evoked splendidly and starkly by set designer Ken Rothchild by an oversized, lit-up archway that defines a proscenium within the broad open space of the brand-new Irondale Center stage. On either side of the music hall are locations suggesting the bitter real life of the play's characters—to our left is a scruffy pub operated by a fellow named Samuel, and to our right is a street, represented simply by a single enormous lamppost; here the prostitute Mariah plies her trade, as do the impoverished Tosher, Freddie, and Bill, men who make their livings respectively by begging, selling poems and recitations, and letting men punch him in the nose for a penny. Archie, a drunken Scotsman, frequents Samuel's place, much to the distress of his wife and daughter; a Jew, Nathaniel, is a somewhat less welcome visitor who is readying himself for marriage to an immigrant. Hovering around all of the activities of the neighborhood is Jenny, operator of a brothel and apparently the entrepreneurial mind behind various other profitable but illicit activities. She's dangerous but good-hearted, sort of a female Fagin type.
We get to know all of these people and the tough circumstances of their sad lives through their interactions with one another and through their turns, solo and in groups, at the music hall. Freddie, who was once an actor, regales us with a comical song with (presumably) limitless verses about the night he played Macbeth (disastrously, the song informs us). Tosher sings a ditty about London beggars, while Archie's little girl Lily has a plaintive, maybe even morbid, tune about a wastrel father who stays out drinking all night while his sick little child wastes away at home. Jenny performs "Burlington Bertie" and a hilarious number called "Don't Have Any More Mrs. Moore."
The tension between the harshness of the characters' lives—which Trevis and her company relate unstintingly to us—and the uplift and high spirits of the music hall gives London Cries a unique potency.
The cast of 11, headed by British stage star Jenny Galloway (best known to Americans as the definitive Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables), is somewhat uneven. Galloway, as Jenny, is triumphant throughout, and several of her American colleagues—all Irondale members or alumni—deliver expert performances, including Damen Scranton as Samuel, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend as Nathaniel, Nolan Kennedy as Bill, and Michael-David Gordon as Tosher. In the central role of Freddie, Richard Poe seems miscast, however.
Trevis and her movement coordinator Kim Jordon use the company and space beautifully, keeping the show lively and, mostly, tight. A second-act sequence involving a boxing match between Bill and Nathaniel is breathtaking, effectively bridging the two worlds of the show. However another sequence in the second half, in which a couple of Grand Guignol-ish horror tales are enacted by the company, feels like an interruption.
London Cries is on its way to becoming a very stirring and very entertaining work of theatre, though, and when we next see it on these shores, following a run at the Old Vic, I suspect it will stay for a long time. Meantime, despite the occasional work-in-progress feel of both the show and its venue (Irondale Center, a brand new New York City theatre, is still acquiring finishing touches of its own), I urge you not to miss the opportunity to see this fascinating new musical and this new theatre in Brooklyn.