John & Jen (Bray prod, Southwark playhouse)

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

“There’s a time in our lives when we will know, there’s a time to stay home and a time to grow.”

I was recently fortunate to grab a ticket to Bray Productions’ John & Jen at the Southwark Playhouse. This is a musical with just two characters, written by Andrew Lippa and Tommy Greenwald. And this was an exciting trip to me for a few reasons. First, despite holding a keen interest in musical theatre, I had not seen a live production in nearly 2 years. Second, it has been a long time since I have seen a musical which I am unfamiliar with.

My partner’s mum overheard my elevator pitch of John & Jen and commented that it might be better off with more dragons and explosions in the plot. Fair, this deeply intimate show tells the story of a brother and sister growing up alongside the shadow of an abusive father. When Jen, sister, moves out to college in New York, John grows disillusioned with his sister and decides to join the US Army. Following the news of John’s death in action, Jen struggles with the legacy of her departure. The second act follows Jen raising a son of her own, also called John, and navigating her personal traumas whilst trying not to inflict them on her son. There is a lot to say here in terms of familial relationships and perhaps the inevitability of

At times, the musical struggles to shake off its American roots for a British audience. Often, it moves too quickly to deliver certain emotive notes effectively. In many ways though, glimpses of different memories of growing up with a sibling are universal and cross cultural obstacles. Like the musical's plot, childhood whirlwinds. We are rarely pre-warned for moments of conflict and crisis. Years pass, and you only realise they have when someone makes the same joke they made before. Only this time it feels different.

I wonder, though, whether John & Jen also feels stuck for this reason. The feeling of our particular era of emergency is one of delayed, obvious and degrading change, of clearly seeing the untreated wounds of years past still festering and overlooked by those who have the potential to face them. At this moment in time I feel we recognise the enormity and the pace of the difficulties we face. The musical has a free-wheeling speed, a surprise factor, which didn't quite resonate with me.

From the window frame gobo casting light through the roof, to the visible costume items hung by the auditorium entrance, I felt reassured to be back in a space which enjoys the importance of make-believe.

As a part-time writer and full-time obsessive, I find myself enraptured by ideas for periods of time. For a while, David Román has been a guiding force for me. In Acts of Intervention, he writes that “criticism can also be a cooperative endeavor and collaborative engagement with a larger social mission” (xxvi - xxvii). Being an audience member, paying the ticket price, is an inescapable act of cooperation in the performance. Criticism then, as something which we ALL DO in our heads and conversations, is something which should also be collaborative. Teasing out "good" elements (always personally unique to the critic) and questioning limiting elements is surely the goal of criticism. It's about a conversation.

This piece of writing is intentionally unfinished, random, meandering. There is no final point, just a slideshow of thoughts. It would have stayed in my notes forever if I attempted to "finish" it to a level I am happy with. I am learning to be okay with not making sense, sharing incomplete work, not rereading before posting (although I just did now).

More from Román to finish:

“Critical generosity pays attention to the conditions and constraints of contemporary cultural production and to the potential of cultural production to intervene in the political and public worlds under which people now struggle to live.” (Acts of Intervention xxviii)

Jon and Jen was directed by Guy Retallack, Musical Supervisor Michael Bradley, Musical Director Bob Broad, Scenic & Costume Design Natalie Johnson, Sound Design Andrew Johnson, Production Manager Matt Harper, Stage Manager Robyn-Amber Manners, Casting Leon Kay Casting, and was produced by Bray Productions. With Rachael Tucker and Lewis Cornay.