Shake, Rumble & Roll
Tristan Bernays's Teddy
Southwark Playhouse | London
music Dougal Irvine
directed by Eleanor Rhode
Snapdragon and Theatre Bench’s production of Teddy accomplishes that rarest of things: it leaves you feeling as giddy and untethered as a teenager again. This time machine of a show, powered by fictional four-piece Johnny Valentine and The Broken Hearts, crackles with vintage chemistry as Teddy and Josie – two spunky, sparky, South London youths – embark on a fateful night out in 1956. It bowls along with a tremulous exuberance that will lead you back to those long-ago nights where hours were spent in preparation, anticipation, without a clue as to how you’ll get in anywhere or pay for anything. Potent nostalgia, whenever you were born.
Part of its remarkable spring, finely coiled by Eleanor Rhode’s darkly confident direction, is the run-up to Josie and Teddy’s first encounter. When they eventually meet it makes for a moment more magic than most of the Romeo & Juliets you’ll have seen. Joseph Prowen’s Teddy is a slick and shining-faced sweetheart, cockily tweaking his peacock-green lapels and daring us to join him for a joy-ride. His playful jibing, creamy croon and knee-knocking moves suggest his hopes of future stardom could, in a parallel tale, be much more than a pipe-dream. Jennifer Kirby meanwhile in gentleman’s coat, bare ankles and twisted ringlets is both powerfully androgynous and intoxicatingly feminine; a pure theatrical pleasure to fall in love with. In fact you find yourself falling for them both as swiftly a foot can start to tap. In a nice rebuke to the Disney heyday it is Kirby who, with a bewitching blend of tender volatility, comes to her beau’s rescue again and again. But their troubled background and indomitable characters draw these two to a climax more compelling and brutal than your usual boozy escapade.
You won’t get quite the happy ending you would wish for these two. But the rock and roll plays on long after the curtain call, and it’s a joy to see the audience blown apart by carefree young couples throwing each other round the auditorium. Well, how could they resist. Will Payne is ideally cast, mistily enigmatic as the legendary Johnny Valentine. He’s joined by the rumblingly hip Alexander Bean as Sammy ‘The Sticks’, while Alice Offley on bass and Harrison White as musical director complete the irresistible line-up. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography shakes, rattles and swirls across Max Dorey’s romantic set of dilapidated oil drums and billboards. And Tristan Bernays’ dialogue is a whirlwind of cheeky lingo, coarse wit, offbeat rhyme and a whole cast of characters which, alternately played (and always absorbingly) by Prowen and Kirby, fill out the story as finely as a well-fluffed quiff.
The Southwark Playhouse just gets better and better. It’s beginning to feel like a genuine and worthy protégé to one of London’s best, the Young Vic. The location for Teddy is fitting (Elephant and Castle, natch) and despite the 50s setting the perilous, pulsating sexuality feels utterly apt – there are Josies and Teddies heading out to play and plot all through this bubbling neighbourhood, where the right look can lead to love (and the wrong one to a busted jaw). Yet Teddy, in all of its delectable danger, somehow feels as wholesome, too, as a punch-fuelled jive. Turn up early for the swing lessons, kick your heels to the band afterwards, and most certainly take a date – the perfect occasion for a tall, dark Joe or Jane Doe. As it goes for Josie and Teddy, who knows where the night will take you.
photo | ©Darren Bell