Southwark Playhouse has transformed into a wine bar to host a brand new musical, Tasting Notes.

© Chris Marchant

This original musical devised by Charlie Ryall (book) and Richard Baker (score), with both contributing to lyrics, spins through 24 hours in the lives of five staff members and one very troubled customer of a boutique, industrial-chic wine bar. Each of them are suffering personal crises of frustration, exhaustion, self-worth and conscience.

As a clever prelude, director Shelley Williams has her cast, as the last of the audience gathers, arrive on stage pantomiming opening duties for the venue: gestures of consulting, prepping, positioning. Nancy Zamit does great trade in comic exasperation as overworked owner LJ. Attempting her best to cheerfully accommodate her workers’ disruptive shift absences and requests for early departures, whilst extending herself too much in the process (she practically lives at the site). Wendy Morgan’s Hungarian Eszter struggles to fully communicate, blocked by a limited grasp of English. Party-boy George (Sam Kipling) regularly strikes poses and tosses out bon mots, lost behind a firmly-fixed mask of conviviality. Charlie Ryall’s Maggie nurses disappointments at failed auditions, doubting her life choices. Niall Ransome’s shy Oliver worries over his cat’s health, all love and affection directed towards his pet. Regular customer Joe (Stephen Hoo), lonely and perpetually inebriated, is met with both hostility and compassion by the vexed staff. Occasionally, the actors will take on brief depictions of various irritating patrons, ignorant and unsophisticated, pompously questioning LJ’s qualifications as a wine expert. All the performers are strong enough actors to carry through a variable assemblage of vocal prowess (Hoo and Kipling especially excel, delivering standout emotive ballads).

© Chris Marchant

Charlie Ryall states in her production memo that the paramount intention of Tasting Notes is to give dignity and dimension to a sector of people (those in the hospitality industry). With whom ordinarily the public will have no more than a glancing interaction with. Yet who operate under tremendous stress and strain, vulnerable to peoples’ worst impulses. By extension, over the course of the night, each member of the wine bar will come to see a colleague in a new light. Musician Richard Baker, as well, has given each character an individual “signature”, an interval (gap between two notes) that acts as a form of melodic identity and distinction. The score is performed live with poise and polish by the gifted duo of cellist Matt James and drummer Jeremy Barnett who skilfully manoeuvre a small performance area.

The structure of the work is less a narrative than a musical motif, a series of reprises with slight variations. In which each movement resets the stage, as it were, with one of the six main characters assuming a central role. This device allows a chance for each voice to be more substantially heard, for each individual to be seen in fuller dimension before he or she becomes yet again a supporting player. Guards are down, defences less attuned, more of the authentic self present, so by the time each again is absorbed into the ensemble the audience has new perspective on each character (and indeed the motivating sequence plays out with tiny but sharp differences in tone and expression). The sweetest development is in seeing the growing acknowledgement of the attraction between Oliver and Maggie, taking proactive steps after so many tentative fumblings.

© Chris Marchant

That said, the arc of some characters work much better than others. LJ, Maggie, George & Joe are given enough space and time to make impact. However, Eszter and Oliver feel rather shortchanged. It is in the concluding chapter that the script takes a major misstep. Not so catastrophic as to collapse the house, but at least severely compromise the foundations. To this point, most of the drama has been quotidian (everyday tragedies and concessions, humanely observed), but there is an action taken that is too serious and severe for the otherwise gentle structure to withstand. And the melodramatic excess of it throws off the scale. All previous iterations of the 24-hour period have progressed towards moments of compassion and insight. A closeness engendered by understanding, but the deed perpetrated in this final section is the result of a blindness born of anger, more an annihilating force. The show, which quickly settles back into its more lighthearted model, doesn’t seem anywhere near ready to confront the very real consequences of such behaviour – and it’s impossible to not feel differently about a major character.

For a work with such a generosity of spirit, advocating for taking a deep, meaningful quaff over the fleeting flavour assessments of the titular Tasting Notes, this sudden reversal feels like a startling violation of principle. The overall goodwill established keeps the piece from disaster, but the curious choice lingers bafflingly.

Tasting Notes is on at Southwark Playhouse until the 27th of August.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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