Romance Romance ★★★★✰
Reviewed by Genevieve Trinkett
It’s safe to say that Romance Romance is not standard fare for Above The Stag. Nestled under the arches at Vauxhall station, the UK’s only professional LGBT+ theatre is famous for the flamboyant and bawdy GRINDR:The Opera, and is about to play host to trash diva pastiche Queereteria TV. It is, therefore, something of a surprise to find them playing host to this gentle, wry musical about love.
First staged off-Broadway in 1987, and somewhat overshadowed by The Phantom Of The Opera which premiered at the same time, the production comprises two short stories. Firstly we have The Little Comedy, based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler and set in fin-de-siècle Vienna. After the interval, we are sped forward to the present-day Hamptons in Summer Share, based on the play Le Pain de Ménage by Jules Renard. Essentially very different in nature, the plays share a theme of dilemmas of the heart, a haunting, soul-searching ballad (It’s Not Too Late) and a focus on a central couple. Originally devised with straight protagonists in mind, the book and lyrics have been sensitively re-written by original writer Barry Harman and director Steven Dexter for same-sex couples.
The Little Comedy is a charming and entertaining vignette on the subject of romantic ennui and the significance of money in relationships. Light and frothy for the most part, it nevertheless packs an emotional punch at times, particularly during songs such as The Night It Had To End. A Rustic Country Inn was also a high point, as the lovers comically bewailed the torture of being stuck on a romantic holiday in the middle of nowhere. Blair Robertson is strong as cynical Alfred, while Jordan Lee Davies delivers a wonderfully comic turn as the scheming minx Valentin.
Summer Share is a very different beast. While it has its funny moments, it is much sharper and more bitter-sweet, delving into thorny issues such as trust, commitment and slow, creeping disillusionment. Ryan Anderson and Alex Lodge excel as old friends Sam and Jeremy, dancing around each other in a flirtatious will-they-won’t-they waltz, while their anxious husbands watch on, powerless. The songs are slightly less strong in this half, though Small Craft Warnings is beautifully poignant and Romantic Notions is madly hummable.
The live orchestra, discreetly visible in the background, played with professional gusto. Associate director and West-End Stalwart Summer Strallen also had a hand in the musical staging, and it shows; action and music blended seamlessly, and the sound levels were spot-on – not always the case in such a small venue. The staging was relatively simple, sumptuous backdrops notwithstanding, and the few props were well-chosen and evocative. Steven Dexter has a light hand with direction, using a few simple touches to underline the comedy and the pathos without feeling the need to highlight it in screaming italics.
Overall, Romance Romance is a delightful show, and one which deserves a wide audience. And, as somebody said afterwards, it is such a rare pleasure to watch a gay show which isn’t just about being gay. This is a show about Love, and Love, after all, is universal.
Romance Romance is currently playing at Above the Stag theatre in Vauxhall.