The Guardian ★★★★ – Mark Lawson
Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle on the theme of life choices adapts well to social distancing, with a cast whose big voices make the huge auditorium feel small.
Balancing dramatic interaction with the science of infection, pandemic theatre has so far consisted mainly of monologues (the magnificent Bridge theatre season) with the occasional duo speaking two metres apart.
So five performers together, in Songs for a New World, feels like a crowd scene. The London Palladium stage is also big enough to rule in six musicians and, for the finale, a chorus of half a dozen drama students.
Because some research suggests greater risk of “aerosol and droplet spread” from singing than speech, director Séimí Campbell has to create socially distanced tableaux in which the singers never face each other.
At first it’s like watching a pop group that has fallen out so badly they have restraining orders against each other. But it helps that this 1995 piece by Jason Robert Brown (whose two-character musical The Last Five Years is running at the Southwark Playhouse) features people in what we now call isolation bubbles. A concept song cycle on the theme of life choices, each of its numbers is for a distinct character, including a sailor sighting the Americas in 1492, a contemporary New Yorker contemplating suicide, and Mrs Santa Claus.
Character and narrative are not always immediately clear without recourse to the eye-wateringly exorbitant programme (£15!). But the cast – David Hunter, Shem Omari James, Rachel John, Cedric Neal and Rachel Tucker – have voices big and clear enough to make the huge stage and vast auditorium feel small. Stand-outs, from a score alternately inflected by Sondheim and gospel, are Neal’s ecstatic sight from sea of the terrain now run by Trump, and Tucker’s bitter-funny turn as the woman who loses her husband to every other home at Christmas.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Palladium’s owner, has fought titanically, in public and Westminster private, to argue a model of Covid-safe theatre. Combining clever selection of repertoire with precautions for performers and audiences (thermometers, spaced seating, masking), Songs for a New World shows that crisis entertainment can be bolder than just solo shows.