‘Everybody has one great lost love. They broke our hearts, they haunt our dreams, and we will never, ever forget them. But what if fate gave you another chance? Do you think you’d get things right the second time around?’
This is the premise of Stuart Matthew Price’s new musical Before After, which I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing yesterday in its workshop format at one of my favourite venues in London, the studio of the St James theatre. Ami meets Ben on a beautiful hillside near a tree, and she recognises him instantly. The reason? He was once the love of her life, and she his. Now however, Ben doesn’t recognise her at all and therein we have the crux of the story: what went so wrong between the couple, and is it possible for them to find each other again? Director Simon Grieff described the show in his introduction as: ‘a conventional love story told unconventionally’, I loved this description for two reasons: first it’s essentially the storytelling tool; Ben and Ami’s story unfolds in Before and After scenes respectively, and secondly the idea of lovers reconnecting really appealed to me as it made a totally refreshing change from the traditional romance. I’ll be really interested to see how the transitions between the two time frames and the production as a whole works on a larger scale beyond the workshop in terms of set, costumes etcetera, but thanks to Rebecca Pitt and Christopher Jay (Design), Pav Kucharski (Lighting and Sound), Stephen Ridley (MD and Orchestrator), Max Gallagher (Assistant to MD), Hannah Ashenden (Cello), John Gregson (Guitar) and the aformentioned Simon Grieff at the directing helm, it’s perfectly clear that if this is how the piece stands at its workshop phase, then it’s in incredibly safe and capable hands.
This was my first opportunity I’ve had to see Stuart’s work live and throughout the entire piece, my overwhelming thought was: ‘my god, I wish I had wrote this’ because it spoke to me on so many levels emotionally: one minute I’d be laughing, the next I’d be teary and have the most wonderful goosebumps, and therein for me lies the power of Stuart’s work. Along with book and additional lyrics by Timothy Knapman, the duo have created a piece that is wonderfully funny (my favourites included a little homage to Psycho , ‘ Ami lamenting her circumstances over what turns out to be a fateful glass of red wine, ‘Nobody’s been wanton since the Brontes! ‘ and Ben deciding the fate of his potential romantic conquest rests entirely on his choice of shirt colour) but also profoundly beautiful in its sheer simplicity: the entire musical is for me about the idea of finding love, losing love, and above all what it means to be loved. My favourite conversation of all captured this in a nutshell: ‘You deserve so much better’ ‘No I don’t… I deserve you’.’
My greatest wish is that I will one day have even an nth of Stuart’s storytelling ability. He’s become a new inspiration to me, and one I hope I can learn from. And that’s before we even get to his awesome scores and the people who brought his story to life! Being a ‘two hander’, the piece relies totally on how these two characters relate and react to one another, and I was once again struck by Stuart’s storytelling ability in that Ben and Ami are slightly older than your average ‘rom com’ couple, and I feel that his decision is totally right for the piece; it needs two figures with believable ‘life experience’ in order to pull off. It also made the potential for an unresolved resolution appeal more to me than it may have with younger characters, though I was equally pleased with the actual ending and felt it just as beautiful and poignant as where it could have ended. More fundamentally though, you need an actor and actress who work well and believably together in order to bring the piece to life, and my goodness did we have that here in Hadley Fraser & Caroline Sheen. Within Stuart’s score there are some wonderful songs, and he gives Ben and Ami a chance to shine alone as well as together. With me, you’re onto a winner if a song is able to give me goosebumps within the first thirty seconds or so, and I found that quality in spades here; a personal favourite being As Long As You’re There. Hearing Caroline sing again after such a long time was a real joy, and she gave Ami a really endearing combination of warmth and vulnerability, I felt an affinity with her that I generally struggle to find in female musical theatre characters. Ah, Hadley. I adore him, you know this, so am not going to repeat myself. What I will say however, is that even I, as someone who has been a fan of his for four years, was blown away by some of the notes he was hitting! He made Ben completely loveable, charming and relatable even in his darker moments, and I think that’s what I loved most about the characters as a couple: They are real; they have likes, dislikes, they make each other laugh but also drive each other crazy, and underneath really love and respect each other despite all the flaws and challenges they face. It was a joy, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.