Music &Lyrics: Richard Watson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Richard has a curious hobby. He gets to know his neighbours well, imagines what their private lives must be like and then writes songs about them. In Behind the Blinds from Serrated Edge Theatre, which was set up in 2013 specifically to showcase Richard Watson’s songwriting talents, the audience plays the rôle of newcomers to the street invited to a getting-to-know-you evening with Richard and Isabelle at number 59. It’s not long before they are discussing the neighbours with us and singing Richard’s songs about them. And, even though we are assured at the end of the evening that we are safe from musical caricature, one can’t help but wonder if that’s really true.
Watson is an accomplished composer, pianist and lyricist, with all of the songs (13 in total) written and played by him. Some are sung as solos by either him or Isabelle Paige, playing Isabelle, the evening’s hostess opposite Watson’s Richard, others as duets. His songs have been compared to those of Tim Minchin, Richard Stilgoe, Victoria Wood and even Gilbert and Sullivan; comparisons that stand up to scrutiny based on this selection.
The first half is relatively light, with songs about, for example, the couple who have a playroom, full of chains, whips, etc (the upbeat ‘The Biter Bit’). But there is more than a hint of melancholy, for example in Watson’s solo performance of ‘Anastasia was..’, a touching paean to lost love. This is the fifth song to be performed; at this performance songs one to four received applause but ‘Anastasia Was…’ was received by silence – not because it is less good than the other songs, but because the aching melancholy within it left the audience reflecting in silence. However, there are also songs that are really quite acidic – for example, ‘The Reunion’, telling the story of a single woman attending her school reunion to become cruelly aware of how she was perceived by others and, after a period of denial, accepting that perception as the true picture.
After the interval, the second half is darker still, the lightest song probably being ‘Boomerang’ about a mature (in years) man returning to live with his mother; even this, within its lyrics contains acerbic sentiments. Paige gives a triumphant performance as a dispossessed mother contemplating a ‘Memory Box’, shedding real tears – yielding another moment of almost reverent silence from this audience.
The central conceit of linking songs thematically in this way is unusual and gives a vehicle for Watson’s skills as songwriter to shine. The short links between songs are exactly that – no more than links. The faintest of narrative arcs carries one from one song to the next so that this is perhaps better classified as cabaret rather than theatre. The set is simple, echoing a living room in the houses we imagine the neighbours to inhabit, with everything serving a purpose and nothing detracting from the two performances.
So as an evening of sharply written, observational and even heart-rending songs, Behind the Blinds is undoubtedly a triumph. Both performers sing well and audibly, the piano accompaniment is at times ambitious but always enjoyable, and the guilty pleasure of peeking into the lives of others (even if those lives are fictional) is quite delicious. Paige’s acting abilities are beyond doubt. However, as a piece of theatrical storytelling, it doesn’t quite hit the mark, even if there are some twists in the meagre book (which, interestingly, is not credited). Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly worth catching for the quality of music and singing within it.
Reviewed on 10th October and touring