Saturday 25th February 2012, matinée
We’re always on the lookout for something a bit different, so when we heard that Southwark Playhouse were putting on a revival of ‘Floyd Collins’ we were intrigued. It’s a musical based on the true story of Floyd Collins, who became trapped 55 foot below ground in a tight crawlway while searching for the ‘perfect cave’. Acclaimed as ‘the greatest caver ever known’, he spent his life exploring the cave system which would eventually become part of Mammoth Cave National Park. And when we learnt that it would star former Jesus Glenn Carter, we couldn’t resist.
Stephen Sondheim is said to have described this work as ‘dazzling’ and in 1999 he declared it the best musical written in the last twenty-five years. Perhaps it is the musical he wished he had written. Like Road Show, ‘Floyd Collins’ deals with the ambiguities of American history through historical characters, but ultimately we felt it was better realised. The story is simple, linear and well-told by Tina Landau. The action takes place over little more than two weeks, yet it encompasses everything you need to know about the American Dream – the pioneer spirit of the early explorers, the dreams of riches, and the creation of celebrity. The rescue attempts became the third biggest media event in America between the world wars, with tens of thousands of ‘tourists’ descending on the site, bringing a whole catering and souvenir industry with them. The media circus surrounding the Chilean miners shows how little has changed.
Like Collins’ dream cave, Adam Guettel’s music is not easily accessible. However, the rewards are rich. Drawing on influences as diverse as native American folk tunes, Appalachian Bluegrass and Bartok, the music has an unnatural quality which is also mesmerising, and the haunting melodies perfectly match the dreamlike quality of the action.
Never in the history of theatre could there have been a more suitable setting for a cave-based musical. OK, it’s a brick vault formed by railway arches, but it sounds like a cave, it’s atmospheric, and even the rumbling trains seem portentous.
As the eponymous spelunker, Glenn Carter has physical presence which convinces us that he has the strength of mind and body required to go underground into the unknown for hours at a time (and he spends the entire interval on stage). He imbues Collins with an unsophisticated charm which allows us to empathise with an ordinary man who has extraordinary dreams. An outstanding singer, he gives a perfectly pitched performance, building the emotion to a moving finale as he walks away, his voice echoing in the gloom.
Robyn North, as Floyd’s sister Nellie, is superb. Recently returned from a mental asylum, Nellie has a disconnected quality which allows her to remain serene while everyone around her is sucked into the growing frenzy. Physically graceful, she moves effortlessly between reality and fantasy, refusing to accept disaster because her brother has always had ‘the luck’. Her interpretation of the music is stunning, full of subtlety and emotion.
Ryan Sampson, as ‘Skeets’ Miller, the reporter who came to find the ultimate scoop and ended up finding his own humanity, is very engaging, and brings a light touch to the story, with both humour and integrity. He is the perfect foil for the laconic Collins. Standing out from the ensemble were Donovan Preston, opening the show with ‘The Ballad of Floyd Collins’, and Mensah Bediako, last seen by us in another creepy underground venue, the Old Vic Tunnels – does this man ever see daylight?
Adam Guettel and Tina Landau have created a memorable musical masterpiece, which deserves a wider audience; with this imaginative production, and strong central performances, Southwark Playhouse seem to be throwing down the gauntlet to their near neighbours, the Menier Chocolate Factory. Will the Menier rise to the challenge?