The Last Hundred

Tue 6th May 2014

reviews

Sarah Grice

at 10:19 on 7th May 2014

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The Last Hundred, a new musical written by Henry Jenkinson and Ellen Robertson, brought the full house of the ADC theatre to their feet in rapturous standing ovation. Together the writers, actors, and musicians have produced a piece of theatre with astonishing raw emotive power. Made more commendable by the fact that the show itself is still a relatively raw creation, a work in progress. The Last Hundred, in a one-night-only performance, was a showcase of material which will eventually comprise a musical thematically centred around the experiences of young men sent to war. The project is an unusual one, the subject matter solemn and ambitious, seeking to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

As the troupe marched on stage to an accompanying flourish of military music, the audience was immediately taken by the youthfulness of the cast. The singers, sombre-faced, exquisitely costumed, struck a sincere chord. As a spectator, it required little imagination to wind back the clock and realise that these young men and women would have been the very people living out the tragic narratives that they were about to perform. The opening number was strong, and evocative, performed by the whole cast, and musically drawing upon a well of patriotism as the familiar strains of ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ rose to prominence in Jenkinson’s melody. Originally a poem composed in 1918 by British diplomat Sir Cecil Rice, later set to music by Gustav Holst, and finally published as a hymn in 1926, these lyrics have come to typify commemoration of the sacrifice made by soldiers in WW1. The hymn is culturally pervasive, resonating across the country each year on Remembrance Day, and continues to exert significant emotional force in The Last Hundred. The dynamic sensitivity of the musicians throughout the performance, conducted by the accomplished Ben Glassberg, complemented some sublime harmonies from the cast.

Two scenes in particular, both written by Ellen Robertson, demonstrated a promising range in the tenor of the show. Jennie King and Jess Peet provided some early comic relief in their amusing, gender-bending portrayal of two young boys. Paige Thompson and Joey Akubeze’s duet was introduced as ‘a call not to arms, but to love.’ This number playfully evoked a 1940s jazz club, with the whole cast interacting to create a sense of lusty gin-fuelled ‘carpe diem’, with Thompson coquettishly singing that what they should in fact be doing is ‘something made for two…’

Atmospheric use of sound effects subtly but effectively amplified the performance, notably a crackly, vinyl-tinged voice announcing the oncoming reality of war over the radio, and a portentous bell chiming at the close of certain songs. The attention to aesthetics was lovely, with victory rolls, rouge and military jackets visually transcribing the cast into wartime Britain. The piano-accordion played by Freddie Crossley, along with the prominence of Andy Campbell Smith’s guitar in the orchestra nodded to the influence of British folksong on the composition of the piece. The plaintive flute and strings in the opening of Aydan Greatrick’s solo was reminiscent of Britten’s ‘Serenades’ – the poetry of William Blake set to music. The natural, pastoral imagery cycling throughout Jenkinson’s lyrics, notably Greatrick’s comparison of soldiers to ‘the lamb’ in this song, also helped establish a Blakean, nationalistic tone to the performance. Sung with great sensitivity, this number becomes a sombre meditation on death, ‘What am I worth, alive or in the earth?’

Jenkinson constructs a triad of scenes, which combine to create a compelling, engaging narrative – a miniature cabaret of love songs. Although the characters are not yet fully drawn in this show of excerpts, Luke Sumner, Hugh Stubbins and Greatrick lead the ensemble as they urge their lovers not to wait for their unlikely return. Sumner’s haunting refrain, ‘O Cathy dear, don’t wait for me’ is woven into the melodies of the subsequent songs. Lauren Hutchinson’s vocals were dazzling; among a near-faultless cast, she expressed enormous emotional range in ‘As the Years Go By’, a power ballad with lyrical and thematic echoes of Vera Lynn’s enduring ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The songs share an optimism, and reliance upon divine providence in their treatment of separation in war.

Musical theatre is a genre approached with a certain amount of trepidation, and often disdain, by many theatre-goers. The Last Hundred demonstrated its potential for versatility; the treatment of serious themes proving that clichéd choruses and jazz hands are not the only components available to writers and performers. The Les Miserables comparison does spring to mind – the young male ensemble, the military uniforms, the patriotic fervour and tragedy – but the glorious thing about The Last Hundred lies in its very ‘Englishness’. The closing song, led by Emily Burns, epitomized the combination of poetic lyricism, vocal power, and musical accomplishment that characterized the performance: ‘Cast off your sorrow, there’s always tomorrow, / The sun will keep rising and we’ll march on.’ Rarely has an audience in Cambridge been so collectively moved (in many cases to tears) by a student composition of this calibre. I would challenge the hardest of cynics not to be moved and impressed by The Last Hundred.

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