Frogs, books, sailing and brains may seem like a completely random assortment of things. But when tied together in William Finn’s 1998 show A New Brain, it makes sense how the four are closely interwoven.
The show is a hidden gem amidst the musical theatre world, often overlooked or forgotten, but The Popular Mechanicals and Camberwell Grammarians Theatre Company definitely didn’t forget about it. Their short run of the show in January was immensely successful, both from creative and performative perspectives.
The simplistic use of set was highly successful, utilising a very simple colour palette which was transformative enough for the flow of the plot yet still effective enough to denote each location in which the characters were placed at each time. The costumes implemented this same concept, each clearly distinguishable but still subdued. The overall production design, done by Jessie Giraud, was simple yet perfectly suitable, complimented by Kim Straatemeir’s effective lighting design. Joshua James Webb’s musical direction was strong, and the band equally as consistent. All harmonies were tight and had a wonderful blend. Ben Giraud’s vision for the show was clear, and the performances spoke to this. Each moment had a purpose, every movement deliberate. There were never moments that felt awkward or laboured, and I praise him for being able to achieve this in such a complex show.
Harry Prouse truly shone as Gordon. His genuineness pierced through every scene and song, and I felt myself moving along with him in his struggles and triumphs. Offering a more altruistic side of the role created an incredibly interesting performance, as most performers have pushed a stubborn side of Gordon and sometimes may overlook the inherent vulnerability. Prouse’s vocal performance was exceptional, especially as for a majority of the show he lies practically horizontally in a hospital bed. Both him and Webb should be commended on their work in developing the performance. His renditions of “Brain Dead” and “In the Middle of the Room” were perfectly haunting, and standout numbers.
In the role of uptight assistant Rhoda, Stephanie John was faultless. An extremely versatile performer, John undertook a character who may seem quite one-dimensional, yet she managed to give her a softer side. Her voice was phenomenal throughout each musical number, and her commitment to the role was clear in the constant presence of Rhoda, never once visibly slipping back into Stephanie. Adam Di Martino, a late addition to the cast, was a fitting Rodger. “Sailing,” arguably the most recognised number of the show, was performed beautifully, albeit almost comically, as Di Martino sat in a very, very small boat. Doubling as choreographer, Di Martino’s movement work was polished and fluid, with all ensemble numbers tight and cohesive at all times. Even small choreography, such as the silhouetting or puppetting, was always an addition to the performance rather than a distraction. “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine” was a great insight to Penny Larkins’ depiction of Gordon’s mother. Acting as his support system, her kindness and, for lack of better term, Jewish-ness created a very likeable character. Larkins’ performance of “Throw it Out” was highly impassioned, although felt a little stiff at times.
John Reed’s Mister Bungee was a bright splash of satire in a pond of darkness. The manner in which his character was introduced was spectacular (again, a great directorial decision), building anticipation for his final reveal. The head-to-toe emerald suit, coupled with his limbre movement truly sold the “frog-like” side of the character. His vocal performance was consistent and characterised, and was especially enjoyable in “Don’t Give In”
The cameo roles presented some relief to the heavy central plot of the show, and the flitting in-and-out of Zuleika Khan, Ashley Roussety, Jake Fehily, Michael Lindner and Rebecca Hetherington was an effective way of utilising the remainder of the ensemble in more lead-centric scenes. However, this is not to discredit the individual performances of each of these actors. Khan shone as the homeless lady, with her solo number “Change” one of the strongest in the entire show. Roussety and Fehily showed contrasting sides of humanity, with the former a portraying stoic, egocentric doctor and the latter, a compassionate, yet somewhat misguided priest. Roussety’s performance of “Trouble in the Brain” was hilariously blunt, and his operatic voice was a perfect choice for the role. Fehily proved himself a consistent performer, able to switch in and out of several smaller roles – a particular note of praise to his performance as Gordon’s father in “Gordo’s Law of Genetics”.
Lindner was a definite highlight of the production, with “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” potentially my favourite number, garnering a generous applause – a fabulous interpretation of Richard, in every definition of that word! From his voice to his mannerisms, Richard was really the nurse that everyone would want by their side in the hospital. Similarly, Hetherington’s Nancy D was a firmly developed character, assertive and bitchy in a way that perfectly complemented Lindner. Her vocal performance was flawless, and it was very clear she is a true professional.
An overall strong show, with the cast and creatives clearly having a solid image and direction for the performance season. Although the show is no longer on for audiences to see, there is a potential for a remount season and I dearly hope that it will be picked up. Not only is it wonderful for companies to perform such complex shows, but also to remind viewers that there is more to musical theatre than just Hamilton and Wicked.
A New Brain is a beautiful reflection of life, and CGTC and The Popular Mechanicals should be immensely proud of the awe-inspiring work they created.