Minutes before the figurative curtain falls, beleaguered YouTube star Zoe (Jess Bollands) – standing in line at the musical’s namesake coffee shop, Queueue – pops a throwaway question: ‘Can I be honest?’ It’s an innocent ask that, with almost accidental ease, gets straight to the heart of this latest collaboration between librettist Leo Mercer and composer Stephen Hyde. Armed with sensitive actors, razor-sharp wordplay and a frankly beautiful score, Queueue attempts to place a finger on what it truly means for us, the hyper-connected millennials of Oxford’s chronic coffee crowd, to ‘keep in touch’.
With cast and chorus already seated among the audience, the action follows seamlessly from the relaxed, pre-show atmosphere at the Modern Art Oxford Café. Surprisingly – given its creators’ reputations for the whimsical – the musical proceeds on a fairly conventional structure, beginning with a rousing ensemble number (‘Young Blood’) before the four central characters receive their own solos. Of these, an anxious analyst with an endless list of things to do, Alice (Jemimah Taylor), and the elusive hacker and Julian Assange-lookalike, Cody (Charles Styles), establish themselves most strongly with brilliant anchoring voices and, in the latter’s case, a disarming rap set (‘Invisible’).
The tried-and-tested format proves its purpose as the plot unfolds. For a relatively brief musical (fifteen numbers in all), Hyde and Mercer have not skimped on the storyline, and the opening sequence provides crucial raw material for what happens next. Above and beyond the traditional ‘boy-meets-girl’ – though there is a feel-good dose of that – the various characters are hacked, wooed, discovered, spurned, pilloried online, and rescued by the barista-turned-superhero, Jazz (Ben Christopher). Without giving too much away, Queueue lives up to its premise of bringing Alice in Wonderland into the dotcom-world of clickbait and cables, where the screen replaces the looking glass.
In one sense, the musical is an astute but affectionate comment on the social space created by the modern coffee shop. The Queueue café is at once reliant on the internet (in this world, as in ours, free WiFi is at least as important for business as coffee itself) and resistant to it – the ample excuses for face-to-face interaction, and a barista who can kill the router when things go wrong, supply an antithesis to the proverbial ‘dark web’ of our post-Wikileaks century. On another level, it’s a sly suggestion that despite how the web has made us larger than life (Zoe, for example, longs to be ‘not just a pussycat’, but ‘queen of the internet’), sometimes we just need to come down to earth: as Cody sings after meeting Zoe in the flesh, ‘somehow my life has come alive now’. Mercer delivers a delicate balance between modelling and moulding reality; the script, if at times over the top, is always nimble and never preachy.
It is Hyde’s music, however, enhanced by Queueue’s coffee-shop setting, that is the show’s strongest suit. The creators, who most recently worked together with Clem Faux on The Marriage of Kim Kardashian (O’Reilly, Hilary 2016), excel at reimagining musical theatre in ‘real life’ scenarios, and deploy the chorus expertly in this production to turn the strange polyphony of the internet into music. Here, Kylie’s (Amelia Gabriel’s) part in ‘Coffee Shop on the Moon’, the duet between Tyler (Sam Lupton) and Alice in ‘P K Rastinate’, and the male harmonies at the start of ‘Play Now’, deserve special mention. Hyde’s soundtrack, which ranges from synth-pop to folk-rock to mimic what one might hear in a modern coffee-shop, is filled out by their voices, and transformed by the Modern Art Oxford Café into a chamber choir. Would the internet be half as beautiful without its room-bound users?
Queueue winds up, finally, with the characters returning to the coffee shop after hours, searching for the things, or people, they’ve left behind. For a split second, we are given the director’s-eye-view as Mercer wryly interrogates this too-good-to-be-true conclusion – ‘Look at you, look at me, being spontaneous’, one of them sings, ‘it’s like someone planned it especially for us’ – before the sheer force of the story’s expected arc bears us towards a last big choral flourish. This reviewer would have preferred, overall, fewer surreal (cat)fights and a less predictable finish, although, to director Scott Bolohan’s credit, these were executed with panache. But such adherence to the time-honoured customs of musical theatre served to drive home Queueue’s most perceptive insight: how our ‘chance’ counter-top encounters, in fact, perform a dance as old as coffee itself. Behind its strongly caffeinated veneer, Queueue is a deeply observant production – startlingly human, and a work of our time.