LIFT – A Musical at Southwark Playhouse Review

The first staging of Craig Adams and Ian Watson’s musical in almost a decade is wonderfully intricate and beautifully moving

We’ve all done it. No, not that. Though – on second thoughts – probably also that, whatever “it” immediately sprang to your mind.

Have you ever had a problem so monumentally large that you physically cannot handle it? Like all the feelings are swirling around and you couldn’t possibly feel every single one of them at the same time? Like nobody that surrounds you has ever experienced the same tremendous depth of emotion? And in that moment it seems so much easier to retreat from the issue rather than confront it. Easier to look outside of yourself rather than within.

The human race is innately self-absorbed. True self-reflection is rare, but most people are able to be remarkably perceptive – if a little brutal – about others.

People watching, as well as the tried-and-true British method of repression, must be some sort of universal constant. Love, friendship, the disproportionate pain of stubbing your toe on an errant piece of furniture – all of these pale in comparison to the inherent nosiness that pervades the human experience. Everybody has sat in public and stared around themselves, wondering about the lives of those that surround them.

Yet, there’s still that strange disconnect between isolation and community that occurs when jammed into a lift with a bunch of strangers. Faced either with the choice to focus inwards, on your own problems, or outwards on those of others. This is precisely what the Busker (Luke Friend) does, as he stretches the 54-second lift journey at Covent Garden station into more than an hour through imagining the unknown lives of the strangers that surround him rather than confront his own issues head on.

So unfolds a series of initially contextless vignettes as the Busker observes these imagined characters. From a ballet dancer (Cameron Collins), to a dominatrix lap dancer (Tamara Morgan); from a French teacher (Kayleigh McKnight) to a secretary (Hiba Elchikhe), along with a young professional (Marco Titus) and two Avatars (Chrissie Bhima and Jordan Broatch), the Busker uses small snippets of overheard conversation to formulate a life around these strangers. The show ricochets from song to song as these seemingly unconnected stories unfold to reveal far more about the Busker’s character and the emotional trauma he himself is working through.

This particular element of the writing has been built upon since LIFT‘s debut, with director Dean Johnson and writer Craig Adams working in concert, and really helps give these scenes weight and consequence. It would be easy to dismiss these imaginations as unimportant, seeing as they are contextually works of fiction, but the presence of recurring names and relationship dynamics help to hold the audience’s interest and create a sense of ongoing mystery to the Busker’s character, who is almost ever-present, but not nearly as emotionally literate as his imagination seems to be.

Viewed through this lens, LIFT is almost an internal therapy session: the Busker, through attempting to avoid his problems, ends up processing his own emotions through the strangers who constantly surround him, using his tendency of looking outwards to help himself look in and unpick his own quandary. As a result, audiences will notice repeated mentions of a Sarah – an established, familiar, lost figure – with an object of desire: the exciting, unknowable, unquantifiable K. By the end of the show, it is abundantly clear that not one scene is out of place – it all reflects something essential to the Busker’s story that he himself is unable to directly articulate, or potentially even understand.

The addition of a new song for the Avatars boasts a wonderfully captivating performance from both Bhima and Broatch and is a beautiful song, though this was one moment where the overall underlying messaging became a little confused. This song, entitled “Almost Everything”, raises questions about online identity and the idea that the internet and social media is capable of knowing a great deal about a person, but cannot express your innermost thoughts. However, quite a lot of this seemed to lean into the incredible reach of the internet and its ability to learn about the user to a dystopian degree, and feels like a song and message that would be more at place in a show like Be More Chill compared to here, as it’s a plotline which seems to be abandoned and not picked back up again. Perhaps the takeaway of this is the Busker trying to evade responsibility for his own decision making and looking to others to tell him what to do, but this could certainly be tightened up for clarity’s sake.

From the off, LIFT is enveloping and immersive, transporting the audience into the London Underground through the use of an all-too familiar soundscape: the constant droning of rumbling tubes; the tinny timbre of a tannoy announcement; and, critically, a Busker. The set (designed by Andrew Exeter) feels suitably industrial, with the metal grille that’s suspended above the raised stage creating brilliant shafts of stark lighting (also designed by Andrew Exeter) from above. Neon lighting tubes help convey movements in action, brilliantly resembling the infamous tube map.

The sound design is monstrously impressive. Dan Samson manages to fill the small space with a perfect mix of instrument to voice so that not a single thing is missed, which is a phenomenal technological feat considering the size of the performance area. The music itself is truly a wonder of musical theatre. LIFT is mostly solo numbers for each of the imagined characters within the lift and each of these are as mesmerising as the next. A particular standout is Kayleigh McKnight’s heart wrenching “Lost in Translations”, who masterfully portrays a visceral and painful longing in the midst of despair.

Where LIFT really evolves into something incredibly special is when the characters come together as one. When the different voices cascade over each other like a waterfall crashing over rocks, it’s like being consumed. The music truly feels like an additional character here and in such an intimate space it genuinely feels as if one’s heart is trying to break free of your body such is the transcendent nature of Adams and Watson’s score. What elevates this even further (obvious pun, I do apologise) is the tremendous work of musical director Sam Young, who also contributed new arrangements. The concept album to LIFT is stunning and really does illustrate Adams and Watson’s tremendous work, though it simply does not compare to the glorious euphoria of physically inhabiting the space with the music enveloping you. It is an experience that the English language does not have sufficient words to describe.

The cast are spectacular all round, all offering something incredibly different and equally entrancing, and LIFT is consistently engaging with innovative and captivating choreography by Annie Southall.

LIFT – A Musical is precisely what legitimises venues like Southwark Playhouse. It is an incredible piece of musical theatre. While its narrative is challenging, it credits its audience to be able to tell a deeper, symbolic tale and, when coupled with its sublime score, manages to create lighting-in-a-bottle magic. Or – at least – electricity-in-a-lift magic.

LIFT – A Musical is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 18 June. Book tickets directly here.

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