The Vault Theatre at Southwark Playhouse is a vast, dank and cavernous space made up of the arches below London Bridge station. The show comes complete with overhead train-rumblings, genuine moss on the bare brick walls and a damp aroma. A fitting venue, then, for a musical telling the true story of trapped cave explorer, Floyd Collins.
Collins became the unwitting centre of a US-wide press sensation in 1925 when he became trapped exploring the subterranean networks of Cave City, Kentucky, in America’s deep south. Skeets Miller, a lone reporter sent to cover the unfolding story, also finds himself at the centre of the narrative as the only man small enough to reach Collins, and therefore the only direct line.
There is a solid moral foundation to Tina Landau and Adam Guettel’s ambitious re-enactment, and the issues are dealt with amply. The overground world becomes more frenzied, absurd and prone to folly, while Collins’ underground world grows increasingly introspective, hurtling towards an end of fanciful hallucination and touching resignation.
Particularly poignant are the various duets involving Collins (Glenn Carter) and his mentally vulnerable sister Miss Nelly (Robyn North) who perfectly pitches her growing distress and instability, while also bringing a sense of deep-south romance to the stage.
But most effervescent here is reporter Miller, played by the versatile and agile Ryan Sampson. He carries off a role which demands quick switches between comedy and trauma, the serious and the whimsical, with very little effort and to great effect. Sampson (Fresh Meat, Brighton Beach Memoirs) is one to watch.
A small, lit, audience-facing orchestra is joined by a banjo, guitar and harmonica to lend a '20s Kentucky twang to a good proportion of what is on the whole a strong score. In particular, the clear and vivacious voice of Robyn North gives us a few solos reminiscent of Dolly or Tammy. However, some of the numbers go firmly out of the Huckleberry Fynn cornfield and into the bright lights of Broadway. I’m guessing – hoping – that this is a deliberate move, reflecting the ambivalence found in the story’s dichotomy, but all the same, some of these routines do nudge the piece uncomfortably close to West End cheese.
There’s a clear, ever-foregrounded message here: the media's, and by implication society’s, tendency to milk profit and advantage from personal, local tragedy. The marginalisation of the common man against the might of the corporation. But in its failure to fully form the characters and narratives, it doesn’t go far enough. If anything, this examination of the phenomena misses an opportunity to lay before us an acerbic and ferocious attack on the hypocrisy of the media and the prurience of commerce.
But these are flaws inherent in the script – and don’t really detract from the quality of the production, the commitment of the cast and the authority of the orchestra in what is a fascinating and convivial venue.
Floyd Collins runs at Southwark Playhouse until 31st March
More info on the show can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floyd_Collins_%28musical%29