JESS HOWLEY-WELLS reviews Muted at The Bunker.
Muted tells the story of a young musician named Michael who suffers from selective mutism following the loss of his mother in a hit and run accident. Over the course of the show Michael’s ex-girlfriend, Lauren, and former band-mate, Jake, attempt to break Michael’s year-long silence. The Bunker is the perfect space for this modern pop-rock musical; providing the exact level of intimacy that you would find at a low-key gig at which Michael might perform–just enough to let the central themes of communication and grief play out with emotive sensitivity. This is a production not to be missed.
First: the flaws, for they are few and forgivable. The set, though striking on first viewing, is made up of dramatic devices that don’t seem fully realised by the end of the show. It consists of two square platforms, one within the other but separated by a small ‘moat’ of water. The moat works well as a visual symbol to isolate Michael even further in the scenes in which the moat surrounds Michael’s bedroom, but at other times having characters wade through an ankle-deep puddle in an otherwise naturalistic moment is more distracting than impactful, and is inconsistently used across narrative time periods. There is also a swing at the back of the set, which seems to represent a childhood we do not see within the musical itself–we are told the story of an anxious post-adolescent, unlikely to frequent a swing-set. Unfortunately when a set is as minimalistic as this, you do expect success from each of the few elements present, and so it is noticeable when this does not happen. Similarly with Jamie Jackson’s otherwise sturdy direction–there are moments of very tactile choreography; rhythmic hand-rubbing and body-stroking. They definitely nod toward the musical’s discussion of connections, but because the rest of the performance is purely dramatically naturalistic, these moments really stick out. The concept is clear, but the execution is a little odd.
These are not the things you leave the theatre thinking about, however–by any means. The real triumph of this production is the entirely brilliant cast. Michael is cast twice over; on stage are both past Michael (Ed Campbell-Bird) and present Michael, the mute (David Leopold). This nicely allows Michael’s inner monologue to be voiced without compromising the dramatic effect of his silence. Past Michael sings whilst present Michael smoulders. Campbell-Bird and Leopold manage this with vast maturity and capability–the moments in which the two Michaels must face each other are especially memorable for their poignancy, without ever erring on the saccharine or sappy.
Michael’s relationship with his mother (Helen Hobson) is understood through the age-old ‘my band is about to make it big, I don’t want to go to uni’ / ‘you are going to b****y uni’ battle. This is shown through a number of flash-backs, and the complexity of the conflict between them prior to her death is made uncomfortably explicit. Hobson, again, is a perfect casting choice; with her extensive repertoire it is no surprise that her performance allows the audience to place Michael’s dead mother among the villains, even if he is not capable of doing this himself. It is this dichotomy which is clearly at the root of Michael’s mutism, so it is crucial that this is acted out seamlessly–and it is. The other villains of the piece are Michael’s uncle–played by Mark Hill with lashings of wit – and Michael’s best friend Jake (Jos Slovic) These characters drive at another key question of the piece–is it ever really ok to be selfish? From them, we can conclude: probably not. Slovic is particularly excellent as Jake, filling him with a fierce, simmering energy which rightly sometimes manifests itself in tantrums, and at others something much darker, riddled with aggressive malcontent.
The real tour de force of the show is Tori Allen-Martin as Lauren, Michael’s ex-girlfriend and, interestingly, Jake’s current girlfriend. Allen-Martin not only acts in the production, but co-wrote the lyrics and is on the production team (Interval Productions). She knows the story and the score as far as it is possible to, and it shows in every decision she makes as an actress. Her Lauren is heartbreakingly good; nuanced in every way she should be, with a delightful balance of soul and hubris. It is a very memorable performance.
The score lends itself well to the general angst of the musical, with a fair few rock ballads such as ‘Down Flew the Doves’ and duets like ‘Just One Look’–all sung brilliantly. The songs do not so much drive the plot of the musical as establish a tone, and create another vehicle of abstracted communication through which these somewhat disconnected individuals communicate.
The production is not perfect – but it is immensely exciting. To see a new British musical performed with such sharp intensity and produced by a team of bold young artists is more than enough.
Muted is being performed at The Bunker until the 7th January. For tickets and more information: https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/muted