Charing Cross Theatre nestles snugly under the arches beneath the rail station. Inside the theatre is spacious and visually inviting, with warm red carpet and warm red gentlemen all over the place. It is currently home to A Bowl of Cherries, based on the book by Carolyn Pertwee and directed by Andrew C Wadsworth, in which stage-hand Albert Farthing and Penny Riddle, an actress dreaming of her big break, are ghosts stuck in limbo. Albert knows this, but Penny has yet to realise. Their limbo means haunting the boards of a decrepit theatre where they can see life happening but cannot join in.
I went to Cherries assuming two things: one, that it was a musical, since the poster read ‘A Bowl of Cherries: a new musical.’ And two, that it would have a plot. But Cherries is a show where the songs and the action simply occur.
There are musical numbers (written by singer/songwriter David Martin of Can’t Smile Without You fame), sure, but they don’t serve the story as the numbers do in, say, Les Mis, where they explain, move things forward and give the audience insight. The songs in Cherries simply… occur. As for plot, it posed a distracting problem for a lot of the first half. I waited and waited for it, and it totally stood me up. Scenes moved from Penny and Albert in the theatre, to children bullying a schoolmate, to a Western-style family portrait tableau, to a couple arguing in bed over infidelities, to a vicar visiting a family at Christmas; all unconnected characters in their own worlds between which Penny and Albert would wander, reiterating her confusion at people ignoring her, with Albert scuffing his shoes and scratching his cap. I was expecting them to paint the bigger picture for us but they didn’t.
So after 45 minutes I concluded that Cherries was neither a play, nor a musical, but little bits of little unconnected plays with two ghosts rocking up every now and then. Which is fine, but I’d rather have known this going in; it would have made the first half less confusing. I wasn’t sure whether the scenes were supposed to be memories from the ghosts’ lives, or plays they were in, or plays they were watching…
That being said, Cherries is enjoyable if you don’t mind a few cheesy songs that feel like watching your relatives do karaoke at Christmas, and accept that there is no through-line making a whole out of the pieces. There is no bigger picture. Nothing emerges to string all its little pearls into one long necklace and the characters remain unconnected (except in the great circle of life, or something). But it has some truly terrific scenes and characters, and some sensational performances.
The cast of eight multi-role adeptly and convince in every guise, with Gary Wilmot, Julie Jupp and Eaton James shining especially. The dance sequences during the songs were simple and uncomplicated (formal wear and canes always charm me), and the finale with the cast dressed as old dears in dressing gowns and bobble hats on sticks was genuinely tickling.
But it isn’t all top hats and tea cosies, either. There is a spectacular argument between a couple on their silver wedding anniversary, and a poignant reflection on the past through observation of the present for an old couple watching a young couple. There are genuine moments of heartbreak, and moving dialogues discussing the loss of faith, the struggle of grasping the complexities of marriage, fidelity and parenthood, of living with death, of the absence of answers in life… Behind the Elvis impersonations and middle aged people dressed in school uniforms Cherries gets deep when it wants to, if you listen.
So Cherries is a strange one. It somehow manages to have plenty to enjoy, despite the facts that it isn’t put together very well, doesn’t make any sense as a whole, and has two pointless ghosts in it. It’s not wholly good, but it is great in parts. It’s embarrassing, but in a heart-warming way. Like the nice boy in class it is warm, inoffensive and safe for the parents, but will never exactly rock your world. It is as sweet as its title and, in the end, a charming, feel good piece, worth trotting out to see.
A Bowl of Cherries is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 31 March. For more information and tickets see the Charing Cross Theatre website.