The first thing that struck me entering the Burton-Taylor Studio for Yesterday, a new musical written by students Stephen Hyde and Katie Hale, is how at home it felt within its often maligned venue. The 50 seat black box theatre is repeatedly praised for its versatility, with shows spoken of as having ‘transformed’ the space, as if its bareness were an embarrassment to be obscured. Yesterday, however, didn’t so much transform the space as inhabit it. With the addition of just a couple of hanging filament bulbs and a touch of red curtain, not to mention a three-piece band, you might be forgiven for mistaking the Burton-Taylor Studio for a smoky club in the basement of a chic London bar. The music greeting the assembling audience may have been jazz, but the atmosphere was electric.
If the design could be described as stripped-back, the same might be said of the production itself. Here the choice of venue again was particularly apt — playing next door to the Oxford Playhouse, which this year has hosted a bevy of blockbuster musicals featuring full orchestra pits, heightened the stark contrast offered by Yesterday’s combination of keyboard, cello, drumkit and unamplified voices. The excess of the former suddenly seemed needless in comparison to the perfect simplicity of the latter. Jazz drummer Ben Varnham deserves especial recognition; his evocation of the rush of an oncoming train through an extended drum solo was exhilarating.
Whilst outshining beleaguered productions of more traditional student fare (such as Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown), Yesterday admittedly does have the benefit of having been written in a post-Sondheim world, and the musical wears its influences on its sleeve in its style and structural experimentation. The latter was particularly effectively employed to deal with the same themes of time, memory and relationships addressed in Merrily We Roll Along and The Last Five Years, with surprising originality. The score and libretto are both excellent, and certainly unparalleled amongst student writing.
Three actresses played three women all connected to one man who never appears onstage. Instead, across their three different timelines (which all converge despite beginning at different stages of his and their lives) ‘Alex’ gains the substance of any of those depicted onstage, yet remains elusive and fluid in a way that enables Hale and Hyde to create a complex and believable (if not always understandable) human being. The stand-out performance came from Jemimah Taylor as Anna, the girl who Alex turns to after the deterioration of his marriage to Sally (Joanna Connolly). Perfectly cast, though somewhat predictably dressed in white, this charismatic actress carried the most compelling of the three stories with a truly infectious energy. Her quiet and touching delivery of the line “I would spend my life with you” particularly sticks in the mind long after the actual melody has faded.
The narrative structure, unfortunately, does somewhat short-change the character of the wife, leaving Connolly with the difficult task of making a compelling character of someone whose storyline is effectively resolved by the mere inclusion of Anna. However, this problem did not seem to affect Alex’s mother, Julia (played by Georgia Figgis), a character whose storyline began even further in the past. Instead, it was refreshing to see writing that explores a mother-figure whose life extends both before and beyond the mere fact of birth.
Despite uneven performances, Yesterday was undoubtedly the best production of any musical, student-written or otherwise, that I have seen produced by students in my three years here. An appropriate end to the Trinity season of student theatre, I sincerely hope to see it performed beyond the student environment that Hale, Hyde and their team have clearly outgrown.