Tasting Notes - Southwark Playhouse Review
Tasting notes are strings of adjectives, increasingly precise and sometimes obscure, meant as a sensory examination and evaluation of a drink. More informal, recreational tasting may usually involve a much less analytical process for a more general, personal appreciation (the gill girl, pribblebabble.wordpress.com, 2013).
Although usually applying to a drink, in this case wine, the idea of a tasting note can allow be directly applied to day-to-day life and way in which we see other people. Simply brushing the surface, not digging deeper, only seeing the way that they those to portray themselves and not the secrets, personal things that they are hiding, even from those that they are close too. And this is the premise of new musical, Tasting Notes written by Charlie Ryall and Richard Baker, currently running in the Little at the Southwark Playhouse.
6 people, a wine bar and the same 24 hours. All brought together both by their work and patronage to LJ’s wine bar, and by a single and rathe shocking event, we see the same 24 hours played out through the eyes of each character from the bar owner LJ (Nancy Zamit), her staff and their most loyal customer Joe (Stephen Hoo)
It’s an interesting idea, seeing the same story played out from different perspective and as someone with a fascination with the innermost workings of storytelling, it was one I found incredibly effective and wonderful to watch unfold. Some may wonder and state that it’s repetitive, seeing the same story, often with the same or very similar dialogue, over and over, but the fine details and shifts in wording tell you a good deal about the characters, without openly picking apart at every aspect of their lives.
LJ (played by Mischief Comedy alum Nancy Zamit) is the put-upon boss with a heart of gold, the type of boss you would love to have who cares greatly about her staff and her most loyal customers. But under that caring exterior is a stressed-out manager, dealing with staff not turning up and her own struggles of barely having the time to get away from the bar. With impressive vocals and an emotional storyline, Zamit’s LJ is the centre point of the plot, with many elements coming back to her.
Maggie (played by Charlie Ryall, one of the show’s creator’s) is a waitress who dreams of more, stuck in a job she is overqualified for. It isn’t until it becomes time to see the story from her point of view that we learn she is an actress, auditioning whilst working with dreams of making it on stage, and whilst this is explored to an extent with highlights of how mental health and personal choices can affect one’s careers, this isn’t her main storyline. Instead, the majority of action with character revolves around her love for fellow bar worker Oliver (played by Niall Ransome, another member of the Mischief Comedy Team). There’s a will they, won’t they dynamic played out from both viewpoints here, pushed along by co-worker George (Sam Kipling). Both struggle to see past how they see themselves, the weaknesses they find hard to overlook and the shyness that dominates almost everything that they do. Their duet ‘It could be you’ proves a highlight with relatable lines such as ‘I often find the words hours later when alone’ striking a chord.
Ransome’s Oliver is instantly lovable, with a shy, sensitive and slightly nerdy personality. With caring for his cat being his main priority, he pushes down his own feelings for Maggie and struggles to stand his ground with confident and somewhat pushy George. At times it feels that knowing a little bit more about this character and why he finds himself more trusting of animals then humans would help the audience to understand him a little better, but nevertheless, his act two number ‘Cats are better than people’ is comical and probably strikes true to those with a love for their pets who we can depend on for unconditional love. Ransome, whilst providing many an emotional punch here also showcases a natural flair of comedy, able to say a lot without saying a word when faced with customers wanting ice in their wine or displaying a want to endlessly help Maggie, be that with setting tables or dumping a load of information on her about micro pigs (you have to be there).
Joe (played by Stephen Hoo) is the bar’s best customer, ordering glass after glass day after day, and has become well known to the staff, so much so that LJ goes to check on his when he doesn’t appear one day. His story is perhaps the most heart-breaking, plagued by the past and tormented by memories. We see his story play out from his viewpoint, providing the shows emotional heart, and through the eyes of those around him as they barely brush the surface of why he drinks like he does. Sam Kipling’s George is a bundle of energy, all smiles and cheek as he encourages the relationship between Maggie and Oliver, but much like everyone else in this production, he is hiding more, wearing a mask and painting himself as the version of him that he wants the world to see. Boasting an impressive, but perhaps maybe slightly difficult to catch every word falsetto voice for his bigger solo number, we see George in different lights depending on who’s viewpoint we are watching. Maggie may see him as over the top and somewhat annoyingly pushy, whilst Oliver can’t contend with his energy and Eszter (Wendy Morgan) sees him more in a way as someone to protect. And how he sees the others is also interesting, with him thinking so much about himself and matchmaking his co-workers that he often hears the majority of their conversations as nothing more than a blah blah blah.
Wendy Morgan’s Eszter, the Hungarian chef at the bar is tired of being an outsider, tired of the majority of those she meets not even trying to understand her. The way in which her section of the show is written is particularly clever, with her able to tell her own story perfectly clearly as if speaking her mother tongue to herself but clearly in English to the audience, but when others speak to her, she hears only a muddled array of broken sentences that she has to work hard to understand.
Throughout the show, the cast often double up on roles, playing bar customers, dance club goers and family members and all boast lovely vocals.
The music by Richard Baker with lyrics by Baker and Ryall is clever and intricate, although not entirely catchy. You may walk away humming a tune under your breath, but perhaps not with lyrics in a loop in your mind but that may be due to the wordiness of some of it. It’s clever, almost Sondheim like at times with a mix of music styles from ballad to disco to jazz. After a few listens (cast recording please, hint hint), I have no doubt that the songs would become all the more memorable.
The set is simplistic, three tables making up the bar with a serving counter behind and the cast making their exits and entrances from either side of the stage and the audience positioned on three sides. From my seat on the front row, i was mere steps away from the cast, which is thrilling and really draws you into the action. That being said, the three-sided audience seating did sometimes mean that dialogue was ever so slightly lost when the actors were facing away from you.
The writing, and the way in which it paints each character depending on who’s side of the story you are viewing is fascinating from a storytelling perspective and i, for one, didn’t find it repetitive in any way. Perhaps a few little minor tweaks of the book would allow the audience to understand a little bit more about the characters and why they make the decisions that they do ie, why does LJ sleep at the bar, why does Oliver like cats more than people for example, but these finer details are pushed aside with the action focussing around this one day. A creative decision I understand, but perhaps one that would benefit from a little bit more depth.
Overall Tasting Notes is a fine example of new work, packed full of heart, relatability, honesty, brutality, reality, romance, and a twist that no one sees coming. The idea of seeing the same day played out through the eyes of six people is clever and written in a way that doesn’t become confusing and allows the audience to realise that so much more goes on below the surface if only people would stop and dig a little deeper. Whilst the show itself may become a little lost on a large stage, and suits being performed to a small yet captivated audience, I do hope that this production finds a future life beyond this current limited run, as I thoroughly believe that it has a future for it has something that everyone who has worked in hospitality or anyone who has ever put on an act to cover up something that they would rather not share can relate too.