[Review:] PUNCHY! THE MUSICAL, Courtyard Theatre, London.
This review will consider Punchy! The Musical, a charming story about a young man called Punchy (Robert Hook) who turns his life around with the help of two spiritual/psychic figures, after losing his way, tending toward alcohol abuse, street brawls and acts of petty crime.
In terms of plot, this musical is coherent and clear-cut. It is endearing, if a little cliché in its premise, and, overall, restores a sense of humanity to those we often deem as sinful wrongdoers and those whom we grant few, if any, official opportunities to develop and grow. A sweet and inspiring story in theory. However, many plotlines are left unfinalised — for example, how Doreen (Amy Mitchell), despite having played such an integral role in the beginning of Punchy’s story, and despite even happily attending his wedding at the end, is completely forgotten after the close of the first act, along with Punchy’s supposedly undying love for her; or the significance of the Ego (Jaymes Sygrove) and Soul (Peter Parker Mensah) benefiting Punchy’s life and the reason(s) as to why they do — and others seem to have no function other than to add intrigue or ineffectual emotive value, as with the final revelation that Punchy has been speaking to the ghost of his father (Robert Allen) at the hospital and not his father himself. This latter I find to be most predictable and unnecessary, especially with the mystical figures of the Ego and Soul already featuring so heavily in this performance.
Back to the figure of the Ego, we quickly learn that he is entirely negative, impulsive and critical, an embodiment of the relative Freudian death drive of sorts perhaps, but there is little information to tell us why. That this negative force that exploits Punchy so often and so directly should then express, very early into the performance, remorse for doing so and feel culpable for the wrong and the negative in Punchy’s life — whilst still continuing to cause it — becomes questionable. What is more, so much stage time is given to Punchy’s Ego that we see and learn little of Punchy himself and his overall personality, with him remaining rather passive throughout the text, the actions of others and his circumstances acting against and upon him. It is easy to reduce Punchy to his acts and to feel that we know nothing more of him. With his decision to ‘change’ for the better not even being his own, it is difficult to empathise with Punchy, to grasp any sense of his identity, to find him relatable, to discover ourselves within him. There remains a palpable audience-character disconnection or distance, in this way. This culminates in what should be a very moving scene between Punchy and his late father, that to which I alluded above, and, without a clear sense of Punchy’s psychology [over his circumstances], it is difficult to appreciate just how much this rocky father-son relationship has directly affected him and his life overall.
As I have mentioned above, the premise of this story is certainly coherent and effective. I would just recommend tying these loose threads, so to speak, and providing better backstory not only for Punchy but for his Ego and Soul, especially for the latter whose raison d’être is, again, not made accessible or comprehensible. This is also worsened by Soul’s resistance to divulge his reasonings and intents, consistently implying that humans simply do not understand the work of the Soul, the concept of the ‘Soul’ itself being insufficient yet the ‘closest humans have come up with’. Put bluntly, this feels like sloppy writing, depending on the audience’s intertextual knowledge and imagination to fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, our reading of the plot is not affected by the absence of all of this information, but including it would certainly add clarity and a more particularised and unique voice to this performance.
On to acting. Almost all primary actors, with emphasis on Lucy Penrose (playing Edith) and Fiona Kelly (playing Olive), are credible, are sure of their character intent and have great stage presence. Definitely demonstrating the most conviction and energy out of all of the cast members, as well as portraying his character’s profile convincingly, is Sygrove. He has wonderful expressivity and proves his talent insofar as physicality and vitality. A great performer. His counterpart, Mensah, however, is most disappointing. His accent is unconvincing, more so than all other cast members, who also struggle to deliver consistent and cohesive dialects, barring Penrose, and his overall expressivity, physicality and general characterisation are poor and understated. Hook’s characterisation is equally understated in places — though I partially put this down to the characterisation of Punchy in the dramatic text itself — but, overall, his performance is credible and energised, particularly in drunken scenes, where physical movement and exaggerative action are handled well. As for secondary actors, improvements must be made to retain naturalism and vitality; it was a shame to note that the pianist, Jack Terroni, had better characterisation than some of the actual performers.
As far as aesthetics are concerned, the set remains minimalist in all but the pub scenes, and I find this facilitative and effective. The simplicity of all other scenes allows the audience to fill in the gaps themselves, and the more naturalistic and prop-heavy design for the pub scenes aids this imagination in generating a sense of business and of a certain naturalism that is not required by others, such as scenes between Ego and Soul. It also allows for significance to be placed upon the pub, a principal location for all of the characters and one that unites them. As for the use of wood, I would recommend that all woods be the same or, at least, appear to be so; currently, the wood of the bar, the piano and the structures on either side, framing the stage, are far too disparate, allowing for a lack of cohesion and identity in the overall aesthetic. The mist combined with the black flat Upstage Right allows for a wonderful effect when actors leave the stage, further masked by the movable doors, and this is a commendable visual decision.
These two movable doors add a good degree of dimensionality, but actors must remember that these are translucent and that they can thus, of course, be seen behind them, particularly if light bounces indirectly onto the material of the door itself or if the door is lit from behind. Far too frequently, actors stand behind the door expressionless and inert, awaiting their cues as though they cannot be seen – most notably Mensah in the first act. Furthermore, interactions with the door must remain consistent amongst cast members: it should be better considered if doors are to be left ajar [which I do not recommend], left open or shut properly. Sometimes, the faltering process of interacting with the doors simply slows momentum, from passing through them to repositioning them in transitions. Whilst on the topic of interacting with set pieces, I should note here that the decision to have Mensah and Sygrove spend almost the entirety of one of their scenes together reorganising the set is most subtractive. It does not make sense for these two characters to be in control of the physical space in this way, whatever symbolism one could take from the idea of the two influencing Punchy’s physicality surroundings and thus his reality. It is simply distracting to watch.
Visually, the doors are completely incongruous with the stage design, and this should be readdressed, but I do admire the use of LED lights around the doorframes and the manner in which the material of the doors themselves is lit in these spiritual/mystical scenes [but only in these alone]. And this brings me on to tech. The inclusion of coloured LED lights, those scattered within the wooden structures either side of the stage, and the coloured washes that appear regularly throughout the performance, as pretty as they are and as well designed and cohesive as they are in themselves, are completely inconsistent with the other visuals we are presented. It is an attempt to modernise what is otherwise a chiefly period musical. Lighting states, in general, are very well designed, however; the lighting designer for this performance demonstrates great talent and artistry. But I do remain unconvinced that this was the best design to befit this particular musical.
Insofar as sound, it irks me that there should be a mixture of live and recorded music. I perhaps understand this when music is played through the radio, but, otherwise, you have a live band! Make use of them! These are talented musicians with a great sense of timing and great performativity, but it apppears their function is misguided to some degree. It is clear that director Tiffany King wanted these musicians to appear as though the live band of Edith’s pub, and this is a good way of naturalising their presence on stage, but if they are to be considered characters in this way, then the pianist cannot be the photographer at the wedding, and the band cannot randomly appear to perform a number out of the context of the pub as they do. In short, their function within the narrative needs to be better communicated. Nevertheless, the music itself is notably rather simple but well-composed (by Jack Terroni), though lyrics often lack both poeticism and variation.
As a final, minor note, the slogan, ‘After the war, comes the war within’ is not only flawed insofar as its punctuation but completely incongruous with the material presented in this musical. War has no pertinence here, and Punchy suffers not so much from an internal war but from the external chaos that he has internalised and against which he reacts accordingly. This ought to be reexamined.