Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Review: The Black Stuff (Lioness Theatre, GM Fringe)

Friday 13th July 2018
Cross Street Unitarian Chapel

Time for a review of another show at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe – and the second musical I’ve seen this year. I’ll admit I was really looking forward to The Black Stuff, as there was something about the premise that really appealed to me. It’s a play about Charles Goodyear, the man who invented vulcanized rubber, focusing on his obsession with developing a weather-resistant rubber and the effect this had on his family. And it’s a musical. Anyone who knows me will know that a musical about a niche historical story is right up my street.

The show began with a brief introduction by director Liz Kearney, who promised the audience a story that would make them laugh and cry, and that the songs would get stuck in their head for days afterwards. I’d already had a taste of this latter fact – I interviewed some of the cast and crew for my Hannah’s Bookshelf GM Fringe Special, and they performed a short excerpt of one of the songs (‘When the Weather is Mild’). That little snippet did indeed prove quite the earworm!

Written by Holl Morrell, The Black Stuff is a tragi-comic take on Goodyear’s life, beginning with his decision to start developing rubber products. We see his early work with the Roxbury Rubber Company (developing better inflation devices for life jackets), through to his quest to discover a formula for weather-resistant rubber. We’re also introduced to his wife Clarissa, who is forced to endure the hardships that come from having (a) a lot of children and (b) a husband who is more interested in chasing a seemingly impossible dream than supporting his family.

The show is ambitious, given the constraints of a Fringe production for a new theatre company (this is Lioness Theatre’s debut project). It’s a big story to tell, and the musical format is tricky to pull off. However, Kearney's direction and Morrell’s writing are certainly up to the challenge. Both the music and lyrics are accomplished, professional and highly enjoyable. Not only are the songs very catchy, but Morrell shows a real talent for revealing character development musically. The way songs are reprised is well done, but one of my favourite techniques of musical theatre is also used to good effect – when Goodyear reaches a climactic moment in his story, the actor playing him has to hit a note that is likely at the top of his vocal range.

In terms of the songs, ‘When the Weather is Mild’ remains a favourite, but the show’s opener (and finale) ‘Rubber’ is a stylish and infectious piece with a great arrangement.

Danny Dixon plays Charles Goodyear, and his performance is excellent. Not only is his vocal performance impressive, Dixon also manages to capture the simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable nature of the characterization. As we’re warned before the show even starts, Goodyear was a character who sacrificed everything in his self-taught scientific quest. It’s a real credit to Dixon that he was able to carry us from the light-hearted humour at the beginning of the play through to the brutal reality of just what Goodyear’s sacrifice really entailed.

Another stand-out performance was Andy Pilkington as the narrator. I very much enjoyed Pilkington’s sassy and charismatic commentary on events, which serves both to explain the background to the story and to lead the audience’s reaction as events unfold. Although often playing for laughs, there was nuance to Pilkington’s performance, giving gravity to the more tragic elements of the story. Pilkington also plays a kind of spectral, dream-version of Goodyear’s rival in the rubber race, Thomas Hancock. Physically, the appearance of ‘Hancock’ is signalled only by the application of black lipstick, so Pilkington’s performance here is key to the audience’s understanding that this isn’t really Thomas Hancock, but rather a manifestation of Goodyear’s unhinged psyche. I thought this worked very well.

I was less sure about Alex Wilson’s character-swapping performance, though I think I can see the idea behind it. Wilson plays Ethan Roxbury (of the Roxbury Rubber Company), Goodyear’s brother Benji and a rather untrustworthy priest. While Wilson gives a spirited and often very funny performance, I’m not completely convinced that having his three characters appearing and speaking identically (with occasional use of a hat, an umbrella and a cross to signal the change) quite works. It just isn’t quite as slick as other aspects of the show.

That said, the whole point of the story is that Goodyear closed his mind to everyone and everything in his quest to perfect rubber. So, in a way, Wilson’s multi-character performance enhances this – to a man as obsessed as Goodyear, maybe the people he came across really did become interchangeable.

The fourth member of the cast is Moureen Louie, who plays Goodyear’s wife Clarissa. Louie gives an assured performance, capturing the anger, fear, betrayal and resignation of a woman trapped in marriage to an obsessive man. While we don’t quite see the story from Clarissa’s perspective – Goodyear is always our protagonist, after all – Morrell has done a good job of elevating Clarissa from a name mentioned in biographies to a character in her own right (even if she doesn’t get quite as many lines as Charles), and Louie is more than up to the task of making this work.

Now… does The Black Stuff offer a full and accurate biography of Charles Goodyear? Well, no – of course it doesn’t. It’s a one-hour play, and so some condensing and collapsing of material is going to be necessary. I don’t think we could have handled seeing a full resume of Goodyear’s many moves between Philadelphia, Boston and New York (amongst other places), and so I think the decision to streamline the settings to Philadelphia and New York is wise. Similarly, Goodyear’s family relationships are concentrated into a singular relationship with a (fictional) brother Benji. There’s also no mention of Goodyear’s second wife or the children he had with her – but that’s understandable, as the play ends with the development of vulcanization. While Goodyear purists might miss some of the detail of the history, The Black Stuff is a piece of entertainment and so can be forgiven a bit of artistic licence. It is also a play that would bear expansion, and it's easy to imagine a 'big stage' version of the play with more songs and an expanded cast.

Overall, this is an accomplished and highly enjoyable debut – and I did indeed laugh, cry* and leave the show with the songs stuck in my head. I look forward to seeing more from Lioness Theatre in the future.

* This would be the third show I've seen this year that made me cry.

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