Review: John and Jen

Zoe Barnes 27 April 2016

This week’s Corpus mainshow is energetic, touching and polished. John and Jen is that rare musical theatre gem, where the acting is as good as the singing and vice versa.

It begins an all-american charm fest, packed full of seemingly universal truths about the unique but discordant relationships between siblings, and brought beautifully to life by a very talented duo, as the eponymous John (James Daly) and Jen (Olivia Gaunt). Vocally, both Gaunt and Daly are superb, and their ability to embody their characters at each stage of their lives is accurate without being self-indulgent.

Truly, the production must be commended for capturing all the highs and lows of family life, where the close relationships between siblings and between mother and son are explored intimately. This is aided by the intimacy of the Corpus Playroom, so much so that it almost becomes difficult to resist the urge to hug Jen mid-performance. The comedy is well timed and relevant, and well underpinned by the darker motifs at play throughout, the themes carried through from the first act into the second and tackled with poignancy and subtlety.

There is good use of the stage and props, to create a den or a cradle or a coffin, for example. However, the production is let down slightly, on a technical level, by unimaginative lighting, too bright at times, and costume which didn’t quite rise to the challenge of effectively portraying changes in era. Of course, due to the nature of the piece and the limitations of the space, this is understandable, and the costume changes were carried out seamlessly- but one could have believed it to be contemporary until either John or Jen obligingly pointed out the date.

Highlights include ‘Out of my sight’ – the divergence in opinion is well-portrayed and, ultimately, heartbreaking, moving from teasing to open aggression – and ‘Talk show’, a coup de force, both actors brilliantly portraying multiple characters and switching effortlessly between them, to great effect. The production benefits from a strong start, but throughout the first act, the narrative follows well-known tropes, which makes the second act really hit a nerve. Jen has become a woman who, rather than coming to terms with what she has lost, seeks to replace it. The emotional intensity from both actors means that this simultaneously manages to be touching and disturbing, for example Jen dressing her son in her brother’s clothes even as the music is ridiculously upbeat.

Highly recommended. If you see any one thing this week, make it this.