Midsummer: a play with songs (Soho Theatre 4/2/10) 6 February 2010

At last! Against all odds here's a play (with songs) that defies expectation. A play about 'relationships' between a man and a woman, with occassional songs accompanied only by acoustic guitar that actually works. It works because it never falls into the trap of being cute, overly sentimental or most importantly predictable.

It was more than likely that I would have passed this one up as I do with with many Edinburgh Festival transfers (of which this is one - later than usual). The idea of a two person play about relationships with the addition of music conjured in my mind sweet 'knowing' interchanges between the two characters punctuated with gentle folksy guitar strumming. Not really my thing but, I was strongly urged by a friend at work to go and as is the case, again, I'm really glad I did.

It's a difficult production to explain because if you just state the basics it sounds like a million things you've seen before - a man and a woman meet in a bar and embark on what may or may not be a lasting relationship as they try to come to terms with reaching their mid thirties. But, and that's a big but, it's done in such a clever and fresh way that the end result stands heads and shoulders above anything else in the same genre.

Sure, it treads familiar territory but it's the flourishes of reality that give it punch and bite. It's not afraid to go places many wouldn't dare to even recall except to their closest friends. Here's an example: there's a great scene early on when the pair agree to get extremely drunk and have sex (so they wouldn't remeber the encounter the next morning). While having sex (and it is sex, not lovemaking) the audience is privy to their inner thoughts which inhibit their performance. The man - Bob (Matthew Pidgeon - The Wonderful World of Dissocia, National Theatre; The Lying Kind, Royal Court and the film The Winslow Boy) keeps having to remind himself to concentrate on the act and not let his mind wander while the woman - Helena (Cora Bissett - Electra, Gate Theatre London; Caledonian Road, Almeida Theatre) is also having a difficult time concentrating and realises she isn't being pleasured so figures she will have to fake her moans of pleasure. The next day as she arrives hungover at her sisters wedding to be a bridesmaid, she throws up on the steps to the cathedral and ends up drawing so much negative attention she has to flee. This is not your typical love story, in fact, I wouldn't really call it a love story at all as it is more concerned with looking at emotional attraction and what brings people together.

Throughout the rest of the 100 minute play we are taken on a car swindle deal, a big night out which includes getting tied up with ropes by a Chinese bondage expert (the outcome is meant to be psychological not sexual) and a foot chase as Bob goes on the lam, running from some heavies he's done a deal with. All this is punctuated by the ocsssional song, some touching in their simplicity and others very funny - like the 'if my hangover was a city - it would be Belgium'. For me, the music works because the songwriter (Gordon McIntyre - a member of the band ballboy) has as his musical references bands like The Jesus And Marychain (the character Bob is looking to busk around Europe singing Jesus and Marychain songs) so they never get too cloying and sweet, staying away from faux folk. Also, Cora and Matthew are great singers, not vocal 'powerhouses' a la Cion Dionne and the like (thank god), but real, emotional singers with good voices.

I was a little worried during the first five minutes or so because the characters directly address the audience and that's not my thing. I always figure that if you can't incorporate that information then why bother. However, I soon realised that I was getting information that added and enhanced the story. It's another example of how clever Midsummer is in using convention and making it work. Big thumbs up to writer and director David Greig (responsible for the amazing adaptation of Albert Camus' Caligula at the Donmar starring Michael Sheen in 2003) who has written a wonderful piece that doesn't draw any easy conclusions and keeps all the various elements and stories flowing so effortlessly with his direction. Funny enough I hadn't bought a programme so I was in the dark or a while about who was involved and had assumed that Midsummer was written and directed by real life couple Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon based on their own experiences. Imagine my suprise when I discovered that not only did they not write or direct it but are not a real life couple. I think that's testiment enough.

Side note: Unfortunately, as I write this, it's the final performance of Midsummer at Soho Theatre. If I get any information about additional performances at Soho or elsewhere then I'll post it here.