Before I even entered the Larkum Studio, where I would be joining the Life With You rehearsal for the afternoon, I could hear a delicate piano medley supporting a gorgeous vocal belt. I pushed open the door, expecting to be met with the rehearsal in full swing, the lead vocalists perfectly warmed up with their official pianist. Instead, I was met with Miguel Rivilla and Zoe Belcher who sheepishly, and very modestly, introduced themselves as “Ensemble 1 & 2”; “We were just messing around,” they explained, and I stood in disbelief at the casual display of talent, not for the last time over the course of the afternoon.
What became almost immediately apparent about the atmosphere in the rehearsal space is that the show’s director, Charlotte Husnjak, has fostered an environment of genuinely joyful artistic collaboration. When I speak to her, later on, she tells me that this is the method she applies to ever show. She doesn’t want to be the sole authority in the room, and she actively listens to everyone’s thoughts and opinions on the material. It is a blessing to this show that it’s director is not dictatorial, as it is lucky enough, as a new piece of student writing, to have its writer, Georgia Rawlins, in the room, and on the piano. When we chat she explains a little of the timeline of the show’s creation.
This musical began with the writing of the emotional solo ‘Someplace Safe’, sung by the show’s lead female character Elizabeth (Louisa Chatterton), last March. Georgia brought director Charlotte on board in May and over the course of the last few months it has grown into something far beyond her expectations when she wrote that one, standalone song.
She tells me that this has been the gift of Charlotte’s directing process; everyone’s voices have, both literally and figuratively, come together to add new dimensions to the show. “It’s weird watching your work be dissected by English students” she adds (I chose not to tell her that I was another English student inserting myself into the mix), but for Georgia, the show is about “new perspectives”, and she has seen that already enriching her words in the rehearsal room.
Conversely, the first song I hear from the show is its Finale. While this was a fantastic opportunity for me to hear everyone’s voices blended together, I can’t say too much about it here without potentially spoiling key moments from the show.
What I can say is that Alex Hancock does an excellent job, somehow managing to hit impressively high notes while still sounding bitterly forceful. At the end of the sing-through someone asked if his voice was still sore, and offered him a Strepsil. If this was him at a low point, audiences are certainly in for an astonishing performance when the show opens next week.
Alex also has the unenviable task of tackling one of the show’s most sensitive themes. His character suffers from a physical disability after an illness, and uses a wheelchair. He tells me that they began practising with the wheelchair as soon as possible in the rehearsal process, so that he could begin the complicated process of considering and representing the physicality of his character.
“The show is not about disability” he tells me, “and neither is the character.” I was surprised to hear this, as the notes I had been given before the Preview simply stated “new writing about disability”, but Alex painted a much more nuanced portrayal of the show’s subject matter. The show is about “a relationship that fails, miscommunication, and where people go” he says. His character’s physical disability realistically bleeds into everything he does, but it is not the reason for everything that goes wrong in his life.
This is a really refreshing outlook on the representation of physical disability onstage, and is something reiterated by everyone I spoke to. The production team (which has two members that self-identify as disabled), writer and director have taken pains to ensure that the narrative of disability is brought on to the stage, a platform where it might normally be ignored, but they do not allow it to be appropriated by a cast of largely able-bodied actors, and the musical itself is told from the perspective of Elizabeth.
When I asked Alex about the challenges of playing such a character he told me that he had tried to take the wheelchair home to get to grips with it, only to find he couldn’t fit it through his bedroom door. This was not a humorous anecdote, nor an attempt to pat himself on the back, but the kind of everyday reality that he is confident this show will cause discussions about.
Before I left, I was lucky enough to catch a snippet of the rehearsal of ‘Someplace Safe’. Louisa Chatterton’s performance demonstrated the kind of phenomenal ability that defies categorisation or description; her voice is as clear as a bell and powerful, and every change in emotion is perfectly enunciated. By the end, the whole room was in tears, the culmination of an emotional marathon and a cast so gorgeously in sync with each other that they feel more like a family than anything else.
This was the greatest sense that I took away from the rehearsal of Life With You. Everything, from the physical direction to the cookies that were brought as a mid-rehearsal snack was done with everybody in mind, and the absolute unmitigated joy of creating together was palpable. Overall, I cannot urge you to see this show enough. It is shaping up to be a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of love and what it means to be loved, with gorgeous harmonies from a team perfectly in harmony with each other.
Life with You is showing in the Larkum Theatre at the ADC Theatre from Wednesday 12th February.