Forgive me for starting this review with a quote from a naff film – 500 Days of Summer – but watching Come Rain or Come Shine, I was reminded of this line: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.” For Melbourne Theatre Company’s new musical hinges on a friendship born from a mutual love of the Great American Songbook – and not much else.
Here’s the gist of it: old souls Ray (Angus Grant) and Emily (Gillian Cosgriff) bond at university in the 1970s over their shared obsession with the likes of Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan. Ray’s dropkick housemate Charlie (Chris Ryan) doesn’t care for the music, much preferring sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But it’s Charlie who marries Emily, both becoming dull corporate types, while Ray lives an eternal vagabond adolescence as an ESL teacher in Spain.
The three stay connected through the decades. But when Ray comes back to visit, Charlie has a favour to ask: there’s trouble in paradise, and he believes Emily will fall for him again if she sees how great he is compared to their pathetic old chum. So would he mind playing it up to save their marriage?
The second outing from the team behind the hugely successful Ladies in Black (director Simon Phillips, writer Carolyn Burns, and composer and lyricist Tim Finn), Come Rain or Come Shine is a faithful adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 comic short story of the same name. For a story written by a Japanese-British man, it’s an awfully white, middle-class affair, zooming in on the problems of three not particularly interesting people who profess their deep friendship which, to viewers, appears paper-thin. Not to mention a touch of fragile masculinity to boot, as Ray and Charlie conspire to essentially gaslight Emily – the sole female character whose depth is revealed slowly through her unfortunate relationships with these needy, hopeless men. What’s meant to be absurd realism plays out as a confused and confusing comedy of errors.
The musical does itself a disservice by relying, plot-wise, so heavily on timeless standards, as the original songs instantly fall flat in comparison. The songs aren’t bad so much as they are unmemorable; many of them serve as character exposition, sometimes layered with duelling parts à la Les Misérables, but none are particularly inspiring. The score, performed by a live three-piece band, does have moments of brilliance, such as a suspenseful buildup when Ray, spotting Emily’s diary on the kitchen table, wrestles with whether or not to read it. But the liveliest musical moments are, indeed, those that are soundtracked by the characters’ favourite music, played on a turntable to the right of the stage.
Still, the cast does a fine job with a clunky script and story. The chemistry between Grant and the eminently likable Cosgriff is palpable, particularly during a charming dream sequence where the two excitedly riff off one another on a medley of classic songs including Blue Moon and What a Wonderful World. All three actors play both their teenage and fortysomething-year-old selves with aplomb – Ryan convinces as both sleazy teenager and bumbling adult – helped along by Sophie Woodward’s era-specific costuming, especially lovely on Cosgriff.
As Ray, Grant is particularly versatile. Some of his madcap scenes in the back half are laugh-out-loud funny, whether he’s ripping an ottoman apart with his teeth or trying to recreate the smell of a dog by cooking spices in a pot with an old boot (best not to ask). He has the audience most enchanted, flitting from raucous slapstick to solemn pathos with ease.
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The production’s most impressive work is in Dale Ferguson’s mesmerising set, which transforms the stage into various houses by way of sliding parts. From a 1970s university share house to a Spanish bachelor pad, to a swish London apartment complete with bedroom, functional kitchen and stylish lounge, to an airport and a restaurant, the agility of the stage design makes each setting come to life seamlessly, feeling almost like magic. The band is obscured as silhouettes in an apartment window above throughout – a beautiful touch adding a splash of cosmopolitan flair.
Come Rain or Come Shine ends not with a bang but a whimper, as the characters realise big truths about friendship and ageing, or something like that. With some moments of great humour and strong performances, it’s an entertaining enough way to spend a couple of hours, if not disappointing given the pedigree of its team. But the story itself is the oldest in the book: a few privileged bores moaning about their mundane midlife crises. In other words, much ado about nothing.
Come Rain or Come Shine, Melbourne Theatre Company, is on at the Southbank Theatre until 23 July