Floyd Collins, Southwark Playhouse

Floyd Collins, “the greatest caver ever known”, is trapped 55 feet below the ground, whilst the national media creates a carnival that turns a very personal tragedy into a sensation.

No theatrical space in London would be more suited to the setting of Floyd Collins than the dark, dank, cold vaults of the Southwark Playhouse. James Perkins’s imaginative design, using ladders to create the tunnels and caves, has the cast climbing and crawling all over the stage and allows the world on the surface to mix beautifully with the world below. Perkins’s design allows the audience to view the tragedy as it unfolds on all levels, strongly aided by Sally Ferguson’s bold and immersive lighting.

Guettel’s score is beautiful, intricate and soaring, but perhaps not easy to digest for a newcomer to his work. However, Tim Jackson and the band do a brilliant job with an already effective and affecting score. I did have difficulty at times hearing some of the voices and found myself wishing, a bit too often, that the volume could be turned up on the cast’s microphones.

Two performances resonated with me. Robyn North’s beautiful soprano and absolute charm as Nellie Collins draws you in, and keeps you wondering where she will go next. The other performance that truly stole the show was Ryan Sampson as ‘Skeets’ Miller, an extremely honest performance where Sampson exercises very strong comic timing. Sampson truly understands his character and this creates great empathy between him and the audience.

I enjoyed points in Glen Carter’s performance, especially his impressively clear and strong top notes, but I never found myself empathising with his portrayal of Floyd. Gareth Chart, playing his brother Homer, also had a beautiful top range, but the score seemed too low for him at several points and I didn’t feel he was correctly cast.

Derek Bond’s direction felt slightly muddled. With a myriad of playing styles and ideas on stage I couldn’t understand why this had not been unified (several members of the cast seemed to be playing to a large house in the West End when others, more rightly, enjoyed the more intimate space that they were in). In truth, at times I felt that I was being performed at instead of allowed to view, and this performative nature seemed to be entirely against the emotive music, intimate surroundings and general nature of the piece. I was also mystified as to why a dialect coach had not been employed for the company. Although set in Kentucky, I felt like I was taking part in a trip around the US as the accents seemed to change and develop or just be completely forgotten about.

A beautiful piece being performed in a venue that couldn’t be more perfect for it. However, I left Floyd Collins with positives and negatives and really quite uncertain as to how I felt about it.

Floyd Collins is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 31 March. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photography by Robert Workman.