The Southwark Playhouse has had an excellent, eclectic season so far, with shows ranging from a thrilling production of conjoined twins musical Side Show, the brilliant dive into the 17th-century archives in James Shirley’s The Cardinal, and the still-running UK premiere of the winning musical Working. Even in the less-than-stellar selections, like the heartfelt but flimsy Superhero, a new one-man musical hot-off-the-press in the smaller of two venues, the theatre’s commitment to presenting performances with a fierce integrity remains ever-present.
Capably written by Michael Conley (book, featuring some witty asides within songs), Joseph Finlay (music), and Richy Hughes (lyrics), with smooth staging by Adam Lenson, Superhero tells the 80-minute tale-as-old-as-custody-laws of newly single dad Colin (Michael Rouse) fighting to keep his ten-year-old daughter in the country while his ex-wife’s hell-bent on taking flight for Los Angeles. Colin shares his story in the form of a family court testimony, trying hard to be heard over the chants of protesters outside – you see, Colin’s gained some infamy by donning a superhero cape and making some very public statements about fathers’ rights which now threaten to undermine his day in court.
Sweet-voiced Rouse makes an endearing daddy-in-distress, but neither his narrative nor Rouse’s performance rise above the genially generic. Colin’s marital infidelity, his on-again, off-again separation from his wife, and his depression when his daughter takes off for Disneyland, all feel pretty predictable (except for the bizarre detail that the affair somehow involves getting carried away while understudying in a community theatre production of Carousel): this script feels more crafted by fill-in-the-blanks than built from the ground (or the character) up. What’s most conspicuously absent are specific details about either the daughter our hero loves or his ex-wife, who we’re told is “a great mum” but who’s more consistently presented as a two-timing, offstage shrew. And because we get so little texture of who Colin is, the denouement, a public protest drawn from the headlines of the early 2000s, seems unlikely and unearned.
Superhero presents example after example of sturdy songwriting, but these numbers never coalesce into a substantial score. Most of the songs would work as well as stand-alone numbers, and that gets in the way here. Each of Hughes’ lyrics follow a similar formula: re-establish the father-daughter estrangement, tell a brief story, build to an emotional peak, end on a bittersweet (or just a bitter) note. As a cabaret collection of fatherhood tunes, that’s fine, but for a one-man musical that already starts with a need for variety, given that we’ll only hear one voice, the sense of each song as a mini-musical unto itself slows the storytelling momentum.
Flashes of musical innovation offer the most intriguing elements of the production. In a quasi-overture, Colin fumbles with the index cards on which he’s written his court statement, and he sings snatches of the songs we’ll later hear in full as he flips anxiously from one card to the next. The first complete song, “You Got Me,” in which Colin recounts his panic when holding his daughter for the first time, makes striking, clever use of the band’s modest instrumental forces (piano, percussion, and bass). Joe Bunker’s sharp music direction adds color and edges throughout to Finlay’s pleasant but limited harmonic vocabulary.
With the exception of a horrifically unfunny punch-line about school shootings, Superhero aims with honesty for the heart. Outside of the show’s ungainly structure, some of its songs might be better poised to strike their target.
Superhero is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 22 July. For more information and tickets, see www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.
Photo: Alex Brenner