Friday, 2 March 2012

Theatre review: Floyd Collins

In 1925, after going alone into a particularly deep cave in Kentucky, gold miner Floyd Collins got trapped underground. The rescue attempt became national news, with a media circus camped outside the cave entrance. Southwark Playhouse's Vault is a large, dark, damp railway tunnel that splits into two narrower tunnels, and James Perkins' design is the first I've seen there not to cover this up and instead to utilise the depths ahead. Visually, this show is a great match to the space and offers, for free, the kind of breathtaking set the biggest-budget West End show would envy, easily conjuring up the intimidating underground spaces the story takes place in. But Floyd Collins is a musical, and here we stumble on one of the biggest problems with Derek Bond's production: Since seeing Parade here I've doubted the suitability of staging musicals in a space with such dodgy acoustics and sadly Floyd Collins only confirmed this for me.

Glenn Carter, whose jawline gives him an uncanny resemblance to Desperate Dan, is Floyd, and perhaps his opening number is a good introduction to the character but I wouldn't know - we couldn't hear a word over the band, and I'm still not convinced Carter's mike was turned on. Fortunately this opener is the worst offender but although some of the vocals get a lot clearer, the sound is still problematic throughout. (And that's without including the clattering noise of someone repeatedly climbing up and down the ladder to the stage management box at the back of the audience, and worryingly making the seating bank wobble in the process.)

What kicks the story off properly is the arrival of the ever-reliable Ryan Sampson as Skeets Miller, the diminutive newspaper reporter who's the only person small enough to get to Floyd. So as well as delivering cow pies and attempting to free the miner's trapped leg, Skeets can get to know Floyd and tell his story to the world, providing the human interest element that makes it so popular. So more newspapers arrive, as well as a film-maker who thinks Floyd's brother Homer (Gareth Chart, more charismatic than the lead) has the makings of a movie star.

There's undoubtedly some good tunes in Adam Guettel's score but I'm not convinced that this production sold them, or the show in general, whose book (by Tina Landau) isn't particularly inspiring. Especially in such an unforgiving space I feel as if the songs needed to be belted out more, and the best number is the Act II opener in which the ensemble recreates the media circus with some of the gusto that's lacking elsewhere. There's talent among the cast - Jane Webster as Floyd's stepmother is very good, and the cute Donovan Preston suddenly reveals a great set of pipes near the end, although Morgan Deare as Collins' father is another one I had a lot of trouble hearing properly.

But it's Carter's title character who's the main problem for me: Notwithstanding any information we might have gleaned in the mystery opening number, all we know about him is that he's an arrogant dick who constantly risks his life then complains if he's not instantly rescued; and that he appears to want to fuck his mentally challenged sister (Robyn North.) Frankly it's hard to see why the rescue team shouldn't just leave him there rather than risk their own lives. Plus, I'm sorry, but if you show me a scene where a dying man apparently gets yodelled back to life and expect me not to get the giggles, I'm going to have to disappoint you.

Floyd Collins by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel is booking until the 31st of March at Southwark Playhouse's Vault.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.
Contains scenes of uncensored yodelling that some may find upsetting.

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