Second Soprano takes a slice of our history and slams it, right where it belongs, in the present. Based on a spoken family heirloom of a female’s First World War, we are privy to a tribute to those there: those who fought, those who nursed and those that kept home alive. Yet Martha Shrimpton and Olivia Hirst aren’t trying to give us a history lesson. They are pooling their plethora of talent to produce a piece that nods to an entire generation, incorporating historical elements of songs from the music halls as well as movement, sound loops and clever direction. The obvious danger dragged along with all of that is that it has the potential to be too much – bells and whistles that suffocate the bones of Second Soprano: the honesty at the story’s heart and the space for audience reaction.
The nucleus of that story is two sisters, Jane (Hirst) and Elizabeth (Shrimpton), who run a community farm before war breaks out. Jane travels to Belgium to nurse the wounded soldiers. There is a romantic avenue within the tale, as the sisters’ neighbour Henry’s love for Jane is persistent though unreciprocated. It becomes glaringly apparent that Elizabeth is the sister with the soft spot for Henry. It is this story that gets slightly overshadowed by what the company describe as “virtuosic comedy”. To me, that description is both the problem with the Second Soprano and the highlights of it. Hirst and Shrimpton’s musical ability is impressive and Shrimpton juggles instruments and harmonies effortlessly. The intelligence with which they multi-role (creating wounded soldiers through movements of white shirts made human, and creating atmosphere with a host of sounds and scenes with a single table) is fantastic. But it all needs tightening and polishing up in order to be comedic enough. Virtuosic is the performer’s collection, their trade, their hobby and their craft – it doesn’t necessitate any benefit for an audience. That’s where the comedy ought to come in, but the comedy is all but lost underneath the incorporation of as many forms of performance as can possibly be squeezed into an hour.
I think that there needs to be a more apparent connection between each of these forms. There are plenty that flow into each other seamlessly and with pace, but the few weak links make it difficult to follow and even more difficult to connect to. The core writing and conception are on point and the performers are incredibly talented, and that’s probably why I wanted more.
Second Soprano is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 4 July. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.