In Plato’s ‘Republic’, Socrates tells Cephalus, ‘They say for the rich there are many consolations.’
The Goya Theatre’s production of Merrily We Roll Along provides the antithesis. The play/musical follows the lives of a group of people that eventually break through in the entertainment industry, firstly at Broadway and then perhaps, drearily predictably, in Hollywood, giving us the stories of their lives in reverse chronological order.
The opening shows us the characters at the height of their worldly success, portraying media attention at Hollywood, glamorous parties and big bucks. And with them also comes the inevitable bitter drama, alcoholism and romantic complications. The first feeling one gets of Merrily We Roll Along is actually one of betrayal, deception and scam – the play delivers nothing that its title promises. Nothing merrily. It is all cynical, disastrous and grim. The characters who have spent their lives plotting to make it big in the show business are now trapped in their success – stuck in the endless cycle ‘of recrimination and occasional violence’, as Hugh Grant’s floppy-haired heartthrob described smilingly in ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’.
The ceaselessly jazzy tune delivered by a live band, fittingly reminiscent of the 60s and 70s America, provides an evermore jarring contrast to the moral and emotional decay that plays out on the stage. The glittering lighting that precisely focuses attention on the characters’ emotive faces only serves to heighten the sense of despair.
Emilio Campo portrays Frank, the male protagonist with a perhaps purposefully prophetic name. He is all too frank with his desires – professional success, beautiful women and material comfort. The character epitomises a generation of lost souls following a disastrous intervention in Vietnam. We slowly uncover that Frank starts off as a humble, starry-eyed soldier with a talent on the piano and a sincere love for his musical sweetheart, Beth. It is yet another glaring tale of the failure of the American dream. For all his dreamy compositions and musical talent, Frank proves to be pathetically addicted to success and the ever-increasing glamour belies his loss of old friends and family.
In a field overcrowded with beautiful, shallow women, Maddy Page’s skilful portrayal of Mary stands out. A doting supporter of Frank’s turned sour critic, her descent into bitterness offers sober perspective to the trade-offs Frank has made.
If the review so far has discouraged you from attending, let this change your mind – the second half of the play gets over closer to delivering what it says on the tin, ‘merrily’ stories. We eventually hark back to the days these artistic talents first started and enjoy the luxury of relaxing into a story where talent, dreams and striving lead to cheery tunes.
In the fast-pacing lives of Oxford terms, it is perhaps a rare opportunity when we get to reflect upon the things we strive for and the important decisions we can make in life. With its brilliant music, dazzling costume and glamorous stage set, Merrily We Roll Along surprisingly offers just the occasion.