Another post-lockdown first for me on Monday night – my first trip back to my local, Southwark Playhouse, which is (what should be) a lateness-proof five-minute walk door-to-door. As much as I was looking for any excuse to return to Southwark, it was the show that lured me back. Or to be more precise, Rachel Tucker starring in the show, musical two-hander John & Jen.
I’ve had a bit of a stage crush on this Irish star since spotting her as a wannabe Nancy in Oliver! competing in the 2008 reality TV contest I’d Do Anything. Since then, of course, she has found legions of fans as the world’s longest-serving Elphaba, greening up in the West End and on Broadway. Her many other credits include Sting’s The Last Ship in New York and, most recently in the West End, Come From Away, for which she was Olivier nominated.
What a coup for Southwark Playhouse to have Tucker tread the boards here. What a privilege for musical theatre fans to be able to see her giving a powerhouse performance in such an up-close and personal space as the 100-seat Little. I know musical theatre fans who would travel far five hundred miles or more, rather than five minutes, for that privilege.
And Tucker, of course, doesn’t disappoint. She’s the Jen of the title, big sister to the John of Act 1, who grows into the single mother to the John of Act 2 (both sensitively played by young Lewis Cornay). It’s a turn of great warmth, tender regret and moments of searing heartache.
John & Jen, an early musical by acclaimed American composer Andrew Lippa written with Tom Greenwald, premiered Off-Broadway in 1995. The original timeline saw the siblings, both victims of domestic abuse, torn apart by the Vietnam War. Director Guy Retallack, who happens to be Rachel Tucker’s husband, has updated the action to start in the early 1980s, leading up to John enlisting in the Iraq War by the interval, and concluding in 2023.
During Act 1, as John fell in thrall to their authoritarian father’s skewed versions of masculinity and patriotism, I kept thinking, that someone in this family was surely destined to storm Washington DC’s Capitol building wearing a MAGA hat by 6 January 2021. And in the programme note, which I read at the interval, Retallack confirms that witnessing how Trumpism divides families was an influence.
Unfortunately, though we get a fleeting reference to Trump being worse than Bush, the structure of the piece doesn’t allow for that particular political plot twist so I’ll have to wait for someone else to mount Insurrection: The Musical.
Production photography by Danny Kaan.