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I must admit I am a big crier at the theatre, but Streetlights, People! Productions’ take on Adam Gwon’s 2009 Off-Broadway sleeper hit Ordinary Days deserved every tear that was shed. Eschewing the lavish set pieces and melodramatic plot developments of many more well-known musicals, this back-to-basics performance in the upstairs room of Kensington’s Drayton Arms uncovered the beauty in ordinary lives.
Gwon’s musical follows four drifters in New York who are all stuck in a rut. Warren (Neil Cameron) is cat-sitting for an imprisoned artist; Deb (Nora Perone) is an English Literature student frantically searching for her lost thesis notes; Jason (Taite-Elliot Drew) and Claire’s (Natalie Day) relationship is on the rocks as their first shot at cohabitation doesn’t go quite as planned. It’s a black box setting, all sung through with a minimalistic staging and just a digital piano for accompaniment. Being so easy to stage, it’s no surprise the show has proved popular with small theatre companies on both sides of the Atlantic. Streetlight, People!’s version returned triumphant from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe as winner of the Drayton Arms Kensington Eddies Award for the most exciting theatre companies at the festival.
For lovers of the big dance routines and gobsmacking sets that are par for the course at the West End, I can see Ordinary Days may not sound appealing. The writing, however, is spell-binding enough to completely conjure up the loneliness and uncertainty of city life without the aid of a set or a full orchestra. The songs are always smart, often funny and sometimes heart-breaking (the tears can attest to it). “Sort-Of Fairytale” is a funnier and less-glitzy version of La La Land’s “A Lovely Night” as Warren’s attempts to woo Deb with romantic clichés go spectacularly awry. “Dear Professor Thompson” is a frenetic anxiety monologue as Deb requests an extension for her thesis from the “Stalin of English Literature”. “I’ll Be Here” – the point at which the waterworks began – is a gorgeously humane tribute to a lost love.
The best thing about Ordinary Days is how scaled-down and relatable it is. While many musicals paint love in very broad brushstrokes, I found myself completely invested in Jason and Claire’s happiness and Deb and Warren’s burgeoning relationship. It felt real to me in a way that the more fraught romances between Marius and Cosette and Danny and Sandy did not. One of the key metaphors is Warren’s philosophy that we’re all like the tiny brushstrokes in a Monet painting, unremarkable in themselves but interconnected to create something beautiful. It’s the tiny, detailed brushstrokes with which Gwon has created his characters that makes this no-frills approach to musical theatre so enthralling.
My only caveat is that, while all the cast are clearly talented, they are at an early stage in their careers and this is perhaps not the place to come for West End standard vocals. The one glorious exception is Perone as Deb, who is also the co-founder of Streetlights, People!. I defy anyone not to fall in love with her character as she spits out her songs at breakneck speed and throws Warren withering glances. In terms of acting, all of the cast excel. Drew is fantastic as the puppyish, heart-on-his-sleeve romantic Jason; Day is equally good as his tightly-wound girlfriend.
“What am I doing in this hundred storey city where you’re always going fast and going nowhere,” sings Jason. For this performance’s London audience, this painting of grand dreams gone awry and the loneliness of a gleaming metropolis may well have hit home. It certainly did for me. But this play’s tender, delicately optimistic conclusion may well do us some good. Like Deb and Warren, perhaps it’s time to give up being the star of our own imagined future, instead seeing ourselves as a part of a varied tapestry of ordinary emotions on an ordinary day.
Ordinary Days continues at the Drayton Arms Theatre until December 9. Tickets are £14 (£10 concessions).