Review: Floyd Collins, Southwark Playhouse ****

Composer Adam Guettel is the musical equivalent of Kopi Luwak, out of the reach of most people, rich, delicious, and little known outside of coffee aficionados.  Thanks, in no small part, to the production of his gorgeous Light in the Piazza by Leicester Curve in 2009 and the slavish adoration of musical theatre students, his work is becoming more mainstream; but this in no way makes him more accessible or palatable.

Floyd Collins has found an evocative and extraordinarily apt home in the subterranean caverns of Southwark Playhouse, damp, dark and oppressive, and Peter Huntley’s production, directed by Derek Bond exploits the depth, height and atmosphere of the tunnels to their best degree.  Bond’s direction is controlled and expressive, creating some haunting images as actors crawl through a series of ladders, or vanish into the gloom.  Voices and melodies hang in the air, amplified by the glorious acoustics that the domed tunnels provide.  Lighting, by Sally Ferguson is subtle  and emotive, suddenly flaring into a blaze before vanishing altogether, and the cast are uniformly top-shelf, totally committed and believable.  Tina Landau’s book, and Guettel’s lyrics capture the hopes and fears, not just of Collins, but of an America struggling to find an identy, and a folklore of its own. Musical Director Tim Jackson brings efficiency coupled with sensitivity to Guettel’s rich, intelligent score, tiptoeing across the fine line between emotion and sentimentalism with ease. As a theatrical experience, it is unlikely that there will be a more flawless example of Guettel’s haunting masterpiece anywhere.

At Southwark Playhouse, and with this production, Floyd Collins is rendered as impeccably and beautifully as a production could hope to be

And yet, as the carnival sweeps into town in Act Two, Collins lies forgotten at the bottom of the hole he has crawled into, much as he lies forgotten for most of his eponymous musical.  Despite Glenn Carter’s breathtaking voice, it is hard to feel sympathy for a character so ignored by the rest of the musical, who spends much of the production lying on the floor.  And therin is the problem of Floyd Collins.  Guettel doesn’t give us anyone to care about sufficiently for us to be touched by the musical.  The show really belongs to Ryan Sampson, in an outstanding performance as “Skeets”, the reporter who brought Floyd’s story to life, and to Robyn North as Collins’ sister, in a performance so pitch perfect and full of life and vim that her every appearance on stage seems to be accompanied by her own lighting designer.  Donovan Preston also impresses, as do most of the supporting characters.  For  the most part, this show belongs to the supporting characters, which leaves the audience scrabbling for a story to invest in.

At Southwark Playhouse, and with this production, Floyd Collins is rendered as impeccably and beautifully as a production could hope to be.  It is just difficult to imagine who will care.  Guettell’s haunting, sprawling music will not appeal to everyone, and the prospect of 127 Hours – The Musical without a compelling central figure to become emotionally involved with, and the lack of dramatic suspense, is inevitably as bleak  as the hole in which Collins finds himself in.

For quality performances, a high end production and an exceptional theatrical experience, Floyd Collins will be a must see this Spring – if only because it will divide audiences.  Like Kopi Luwak, it is beautiful and extravagant, but not to everyones taste. Much like the inventive but unwieldy programmes in the manner of broadsheet newspapers.

****(4 stars)
Runs until 31st March
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  1. This review is incorrect. The audience has huge sympathy for what has happened to the character of Collins, at the outset so enthusiastic, so full of life and who comes to grief so early on. Ant the point about the second half is that you are supposed to have forgotten about him, out of sight out of mind while the media circus goes on above. Go and see it. Go and see it. There should not be any empty seats in that theatre. You have until March 31st.

  2. How can you give this 4 stars while musing on its pointlessness? You obviously loved it with minor reservations – don’t be embarrassed to come out and say it! You do care about Nellie and Skeets and you should also care about Floyd and Homer. And it’s not correct to blame Adam Guettel if you don’t care about the characters. He wrote the music and lyrics, remember? What on earth is “sprawling” about the score? It may be difficult to pin down stylistically but it’s actually a very tightly-written and musically concise work.

  3. I must agree with Sadler here. I’ve seen Floyd Collins twice now and on both occasions have seen female and male members of the audience leave the theatre with tears streaming down their faces. One can feel the pain and anguish of every member of the Collins family and, of course, of the very brave unlikely hero, Skeets. Most of all, however, we all feel for, and would like to identify with, a man who is trying to fulfil his dream. When the seriousness of his situation becomes clear, the audience shares his despair and feelings of isolation. Glenn Carter carries the audience along with Floyd and I fail to understand how anyone cannot be touched by and sympathise with this character.
    This is a first class musical presented by a first class cast, crew and creative team.

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