STOP is a new musical written and composed by Oxford students Leo Munby and Annabel Mutale Reed, and one that I had been especially looking forward to watching. Reed and Munby’s storyline is based around four characters trapped and waiting at a bus stop in London, but takes as its themes the complex issues surrounding mental health. Having lived in London myself as a student and been a frequent user of buses, this is a play that I expected to appeal to me.
So I was interested to watch the play explores aspects of British society, knowing the London Bus to be a typical experience in and image of central London. Having read up on the play, I anticipated that STOP would deal with the less glamorous aspects of life in London – a public dealing with mental struggles and making decisions informed by that.
When STOP’s audience enters the intimate theatre space of the Burton Taylor Studio, they see a bus stop with a genuine London travel map and are surrounded by the ambient sounds of traffic. We are located immediately in the action of the play; as the scene is set with graffiti on a bus stop and a ripped poster, I was strongly reminded of the London Transport Museum.
The action takes place in the present day and a cast of four sings its way through contemporary political issues, referencing real London locations and real experiences. Munby’s music blends classical and jazz, with live musicians playing behind a curtain. Switching between solos, duets, and ensemble pieces, the characters unfold and interact, and every time the quality of their singing is excellent.
Given its intimate setting, the play provides a lot of eye contact between performers and audience. In the first scene we are introduced to a homeless character (Jack Trzcinski), who references and addresses a character not present on stage. This happens throughout the play, most notably in the wedding scene, where Eoghan McNelis, as Lewis, interacts with the audience to make a wedding speech to them as guests.
It is a testament to the skill of the production and its direction that scenes like this can be evoked by only four, or even one actor. The play sensitively treats the tricky issues of mental health. When Kathy Peacock, playing a friendly psychology student, has to read a list of the psychological illnesses she is learning about in her studies, she incorporates them seamlessly into her character. This is just one example from the musical that builds on situations from real life.
STOP seems to end when Jack Trzinski, in character, introduces a charity campaign for student mental health. But this is in fact an ingenious movement to allow the plot to combine the stories at its heart with the real life project it supports. Immediately afterwards, actor and writer Annabel Mutale Reed introduces us to Sane and Oxford Mental Health Support Network, two charities for which the play has a collection. This is the final example of this cleverly written and well-performed show bringing home the relevance of all its issues today.