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A review by Carmen Nasr for EXTRA! EXTRA!
John and Jen
Directed by Susan Raasay
In a middle class home, sometime in the ’50’s, somewhere in small-town, middle America, we are introduced to brother and sister John and Jen - two charmingly clean cut all-American kids. What follows is a melodious, overtly emotional trip through the complexities of their relationship as it rises and falls along the changing tides of four decades of American history. A lyrical two-hander of unabashed sentimentality, it explores the pain and joy of the psychological and emotional inheritance passed down through the generations.
In its bluntly emotional tone and honey-glazed musical voice, John and Jen’s family history begins with Jen’s attempts to protect her little brother from their abusive father. Years later, Jen heads off to college and returns home in floating hippie garments, following a period of political and cultural enlightenment among the youth of ‘60’s counter culture. During her absence however, little brother John has embraced his father’s authoritarian spirit and is heading out to fight in Vietnam. Emotional conflict and turmoil follow, but do not reach their climax until the second act, and a generation on.
In this well executed production, director Susan Raasay is blessed with a wealth of talent and skill, which does its very best to rescue the musical from its inherently over-sentimental style and blandness. Musical director David Randall on piano and cellist Lucinda Skinner deliver the ever shifting melodies and moods of the piece with clear expertise and feeling. Adam Rhys-Davies as both Jen’s brother John, and later, her son of the same name, maintains a youthful naivety that responds well to the changing demands of the play - one moment endearing and the next overtly comical. Saving the best till last however, Katie Brayben is undoubtedly the star and indeed, the sparkle of the show. She throws herself so entirely into the role that Jen becomes a truly convincing and mesmerising character in a genre and world of polished and shiny unreality. Handling the challenging transition from child, to adolescent, to young woman, and finally to a forty-something single mother in under a couple of hours is no easy feat, and Brayben achieves this with nothing but the most subtle of ease and grace. With a true passion and love for her art palpable in the air, Brayben is brilliant.
Composer Andrew Lippa’s musical style, although highly melodic, lacked a memorable catchiness, and although songs drifted in and out with gentle delicacy, there was a lingering similarity between numbers that was hard to shake off. However, on the whole, great performances, an atmospheric set and solid direction give the Landor Theatre’s production of John and Jen a confident vision. A sugary treat for the most shiny of musical fans, but perhaps a little too sweet and bordering on cliché for most.
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