There’s something rather brazen about theatre graduates springing out of university with a musical about how difficult it is to find enriching work after graduation, but this is the context and content of Disappearing Wonderful, an infinity mirror of passionate pessimism that reflects layer upon layer of fragile dreams and faltering ambition.
The musical, written and composed by James Long, and delivered under the direction of Tom Drayton, begins with a ten year college reunion. Here, while there’s an entire spectrum of irritating laughs, there are only really two types of graduates. In the middle of the room, with wine glasses held the highest, stand those gloriously accomplished individuals who did a nice proper subject (like maths) and went on to do a nice proper job (like banking). Elsewhere, between nervous jokes and furtive glances, you can also spot that more down to earth kind – one of those who did something furiously creative but, try as they might, simply can’t create a place in the over-saturated and devastatingly commercial jobs market.
Like a nervous reunion guest, the narrative settles on the surface, where partygoers crack jokes about “hardened criminals” stealing viagra, and comment on each other’s changing appearance. In this deliberately clumsy gathering, the happiest latch onto the least happy “like mosquitos of mirth”, and yell the statistics of their successful, post-graduation lives with relentless confidence. With a heavily-weighted sympathy for the more creative types, the judgemental gaze is focused on those who have entered the corporate world and now wear fake smiles as proudly as their suits. Unfortunately, we are not encouraged to question the hypocrisy of the arts graduates who pepper the event with little white lies.
We are, however, given a little time to understand their motivations. The musical rewinds time and delivers younger versions of Lizzie, Freddie and Steve. Gathered round a kitchen table with their big ideas, small bank balances and “(BA)utiful” degrees, these three young adults inhabit a world where tomato ketchup forms one of your five a day – and fermented grapes probably make up the rest. The crush that emerges within this set of friends seems more like a derailment than a revelation, but there’s a striking yet comfortable familiarity between all three, with our narrator Steve introducing Lizzie as “almost a female version of me”.
The themes here may be as easy to come by as a chlamydia joke in a student newspaper and the casting is a little bit shaky, but Long’s songwriting technique is strong. The catchiest piece, the titular ‘Disappearing Wonderful’, riffs on the yearning, broken-hearted ambition of Bugsy Malone’s ‘Tomorrow’, and Danni Payne is a true show-stealer as she soars to the heights of ‘Circles’ with a zesty fragility. At other points, when the lyrics are less elegantly phrased, the piece delivers an additional punch: the line “La-la-la-la”, for example, sufficiently – and sarcastically – presents the throw-away tedium of a small-talk fuelled reunion, and the sharply spat repetition of “Fuck ‘em” provides enough venom and division to warrant cutting a whole scene of Freddie’s writer’s block or Lizzie’s dead-end job misery.
Disappearing Wonderful exhibits a great eye for the painfully awkward, and a heartening recognition for those sacrifices that, with short-sighted generosity, only true friends make. While only a very brave investor would take a chance on the collected artistic talents of the trio at the heart of this piece, the spirit between these friends is this musical’s real selling point. Back at the reunion, where each character is as insincere as the next, our arts graduates are dismissed behind the throwaway comment “if we do this again, we know who not to invite”. While the musical has its faults, it’s clear that the members of this graduate team are destined to a future far more productive than their characters’ and will, no doubt, have a few more upbeat things to say by the time their reunion looms.
Disappearing Wonderful played at Tristan Bates as part of the Overture festival of short musicals. For more information on the festival, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.