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Ordinary Days

by on 15 September 2021

Extraordinary Poetry of the Ordinary

Ordinary Days

 music and lyrics by Adam Gwon

BROS Theatre Company, Hampton Hill Theatre, until 18th September

Review by Mark Aspen

Stand back and look at a big city.  It can seem cold and impersonal; its people are overwhelmed by its demands, yet feel anonymous.    But look closely and see the individuals there.  They are trying to make sense of their lives, to make their own mark, each to have a meaning and a name.

One such city, New York, is the setting for Ordinary Days, a neatly paired-back musical about four individuals, their relationships with each other and with that city during the tense late 2000s, when the city was still coming to terms with the aftermath of that cataclysmic assault that we know simply as “9/11”.    

BROS’ set for Ordinary Days, designed by its director Wesley Henderson Roe, is simple, subtle and stylish.  On low multi-levels, it is black and white, silhouetted against the cyc, which is lit in purple (an ambiguous colour of mourning, or hope, or reflection?).   A series of representational paintings of New York are seen through free-standing doorframes.  The set becomes the participants’ apartments, the street, the rooftop of a high-rise building, or galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is where our four individuals live out their lives.  They are intelligent twenty-thirty-somethings, at the time of life when they are establishing their futures.  What they have in common are that each is trying fulfil greater or smaller ambitions, and that each is struggling to express themselves fully. 

Unusually for a musical, Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days is a sung-through song-cycle.  Though, far from being episodic, subsequent sections, which are normally a single number, become more and more thematically entwined as the story progresses.  Each of the characters, Warren, Deb, Jason and Claire, open with a sung soliloquy.   Progressively duets between Jason and Claire, then later between Warren and Deb mark the evolving, but very different, relationships between these two pairs.  The stories of each couple may only interact at a distance, but their experiences entwine and quartet numbers contrast the different circumstances of that same experience.  This makes for an interesting musical development.

Ordinary Days is very much an ensemble piece, but each of the skilful cast brings a different timbre and texture to the party, both vocally and in characterisation.  Gwon’s music is quite challenging, and to also hold the often harsh-sounding Nooyark accent without losing the musicality is a tribute to the quality of these four singers.

Warren is flat- and cat-sitting for a successful and wealthy artist, whose penchant for satirical graffiti (think Banksy) has landed him in gaol.  Warren has continued the sentiment by writing epigrams on pieces of coloured paper and leaving them about the city.  Although optimistic, he is frustrated by his lack of success.  In One by One by One he declares that the “entire city’s gonna look up to me”, but just not yet.   Sam Sugarman, in this role, delivers the cheeky chappie cheerfulness of the eccentric Warren.  His edgy tenor voice (used to great effect as Sweeny Tod in BROS’s last show) adds just enough of a hint of creepiness to unsettle Deb when they first meet.  “Weirdo” is the epithet she uses.  The flip side to Warren’s mission is that he scavenges things that have been lost or dropped on the street, a photograph or an unopened Valentine card, things that give him a glimpse of other people’s life stories.  This is how he meets Deb.

Deb has come to New York to complete her literature studies and is currently writing a dissertation on Virginia Woolf for her master’s degree.  However, she has become disillusioned with her studies and with life in general, and has become rather cynical.  Things come to a head when she loses her Filofax containing an annotated copy of one of Woolf’s works and all her dissertation notes.  We feel her agitation as she tries to compose a message to her supervisor, Dear Professor Thompson, hoping against hope that he will allow her more time.  Deb is a gem of a role for a versatile performer and Abby Francis’s acting has all the anxiety of the part whilst squeezing out all of the humour.  Her jazz mezzo attack on her numbers makes them zing and her vocal acrobatics iron out the patter-songs that mark out Deb’s lyrics.   Her lost Filofax is of course one of the “peoples’ lost lives” retrieved by Warren.  Finding her contact details in the notes, he offers to return it to her in the Met’ Museum of Art.  Meeting at Monet or Manet?  This and traffic delays add to her flustered state and her caution when they meet.  His suggestion that their meeting is a Sort-Of Fairy Tale exacerbate her unease, but nevertheless she offer him a coffee as a thank-you.  So starts a relationship that is supportive but (apparently) platonic, and which will later help her to find a focus for her life.

Jason and Claire’s relationship isn’t platonic, but they are trying to balance incompatibilities and compatibilities as they edge toward a mutual commitment.

Jason has the problem that he finds it difficult to express his feelings, in particular his emerging love for Claire.  His number Favourite Places tells how, as a child, he used to imagine a favourite place that was a “floating kingdom”, whereas now it is “inside her heart”.  Adam Stickler portrays Jason with great charm, and his warm tenor voice in Favourite Places makes the repressed romanticism of Jason really touching, in this lyrical number.  He sees moving in with Claire as reducing the space between them, in The Space Between“, perhaps too literally since moving Claire’s furniture does not go down well.

Claire is somewhat trammelled by the past and finds de-cluttering hard (as does this critic).  For her, in Let Things Go, it shows her “my past was real”.  But in I’m Trying they both attempt a compromise.  Emily Murray’s soprano is a treat, and in her picture of Claire we feel the secret of her reticence to accept her much desired new life with Jason, even if we do not yet understand it.  We later are to find out why letting go of the past is difficult for her and why making a new relationship is hard. 

Finding a bucket-list for New York, they have ticked off everything bar one, a trip to the Met’ Museum of Art.  Jason and Claire are exploring each other’s likes and dislikes and the gallery visit is the second test after the moving-in.  Jason likes old masters but Claire goes for more abstract pieces with space in them.  “Why should I care for what isn’t there?” complains Jason.  Their differences are later exacerbated when choosing wine for a party, Riesling or Cab-Sauv’, white or red?   And on the way there they argue over the taxi-driver’s choice of route, abandon the cab and get caught in the rain.  Their duo piece Fine culminates in Jason’s impulsive proposal of marriage. 

The rain, a preceding hint at a storm, and the taxi ride provide good examples of the fittingly understated and non-intrusive lighting and sound designs by Ed Pagett and Stuart Vaughan.  It is the mark of a good stage design that you almost do not know it is there, you just feel it is right. 

Equally much of the scene-setting and atmosphere is done by the music.  You can hear the rain and the taxi, but you can also sense the tension of the ebb and flow of emotions in the music.  Gwon’s style smacks slightly of Sondheim, or even Glass; it is certainly complex.  The through-composed Ordinary Days score leaves no time whatsoever for music director Nicola Luker to relax.  Playing a finely balanced and well-voiced electric piano, the sole accompaniment, she leads from the keyboard, taking a crisp and well-controlled pace to bring out the full potential of the score.

The busy-ness of New York City comes out in the ensemble pieces when all four are on stage, in Saturday at the Met, the oxymoron of loneliness in crowds, and in Hundred-Story City, the claustrophobia of (in hyperbole) being “one in a hundred million”.  They also come together in the Rooftop Duet “Falling” when both couples have a resolution.  This is where emotion becomes spectacle, but let’s pass on the spoiler.

The denouement for Jason and Claire follows from her revelation of the event in 2001 that inhibited her opening her heart to Jason, and her rejection of his sudden and unexpected marriage proposal in the rain. 

The denouement for Warren and Deb follows Deb being soothed by seeing a poster reminiscent of the Monet she had seen with Warren.  In her number Calm she is captured by a feeling of tranquillity.   Thus pre-armed, she once more visits the gallery in the Met’ with Warren, who shows her his favourite painting, an everyday picture of ordinary apples. 

In Beautiful, Warren has the last word, on the beauty in the simple things in life.

There are many themes teased from the subject matter of Ordinary Days and director Wesley Henderson Roe and the company of BROS’ production weave these into a wistful extended poem.

What then are these themes in Ordinary Days?: reconciliation of the past with the future; the fruitlessness of overambition;  expression and repression of feelings; the value of mutual communication;  the joy of simple things in a complex world; and the appreciation of ordinary things  … and ordinary days. 

Mark Aspen, September 2021

Photography by JoJo Leppink,  Handwritten Photography

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