Despite taking me a circle around the block to find, the gothic caverns of Saint John the Evangelist Church in Iffley were the perfect location for This World Lousy, a new musical composed by Peter Shepherd. As a setting the church worked immaculately: suitably dark and reverberating, so that Shepherd’s music achieved a haunting atmosphere and a natural surround sound. In a play whose central themes are judgement and the serving of justice – opening to a fugitive self-professedly “On The Run” from wrong accusation, and then tracing his journey from suspicion to redemption – the church’s gothic architecture and heavy wooden cross bearing down over the stage provided an imposing backdrop.
Set designer Ksenia Kulakova flaunted this background expertly. The set was minimalist, thick ivy wound round the pillars to immerse its audience in the wood that the title fugitive flees to, and four stark windows matching the poster’s black and red colour scheme, but effective: the right amount to dress the already ornate church but not enough to overpower it.
All this came to a climax in the play’s opening scene, with characters entering from the back of the church and moving through the aisles to surround the audience in a boisterous opening number. The only thing to distract from this exciting start was a flashing strobe light that seemed unnecessary. The searchlights projected onto wooden panelling behind the stage would have done.
Unfortunately, this immersive effect was unique to the opening. Despite the church’s ample room and the unoccupied space in front of seating, actors were confined to a small stage. The play felt static, because its stage was too small to allow for much action. When a hoard of strikers entered with banners, the space felt crowded. What could have been an opportunity for group choreography became a simplistic circling of the stage that could not do justice to the thrilling musical crescendo. Some of the most exciting moments were when actors materialised on a parapet above the stage, but ultimately this served only to highlight how limiting the space was beneath.
But if the actors failed properly to fill the roomy church, Shepherd’s music certainly did not. From behind the panels, his expert orchestra provided all the drama that the stage itself lacked. Singing was flawless throughout, and the versatility of Shepherd’s score allowed for a diversity of voices, from Emily Barker’s stripped back vocals as the hermit, to Emily Coatsworth’s clear and technically perfect orphan.
These two stood out: Barker brought a raw emotion to her aged character and Coatsworth an innocence and ethereality. Their distinct styles heightened the difference between the two characters, and complemented the deepness of Aaron King’s title voice. The two “drunkards”, Roseanna Cawthray Stern and Ollie Hull also deserve a mention for the energy they brought to dialogue between songs, providing relief to the intensity of the music.
In fact, every voice shone, and if dialogue seemed at times anti-climactic, it was only because it interspersed Shepherd’s rich and undulating score, and the very much climactic spectacle that provided.