mon 15/07/2024

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York), Criterion Theatre review - rueful and funny musical gets West End upgrade | reviews, news & interviews

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York), Criterion Theatre review - rueful and funny musical gets West End upgrade

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York), Criterion Theatre review - rueful and funny musical gets West End upgrade

A Brit and a New Yorker struggle to find common ground in lively new British musical

Poles apart: Sam Tutty as Dougal and Dujonna Gift as RobinImages - Marc Brenner

Small-scale shows, nurtured in offbeat places, are becoming all the rage in the West End. Red Pitch, Operation Mincemeat, For Black Boys… have already made their mark, and now this quirky musical for just two performers joins them.

It’s been a long journey, starting in Norwich and Northampton and followed by Kilburn, where the show opened last Christmas at the Kiln Theatre. Appropriate timing, since the musical is set in December with one entertaining song about the insistent horrors of the Xmas musical standards, but it works just as sweetly in the Criterion in April.

Illusions and reality clash when Sam Tutty’s naïve, impetuous Brit, Dougal, arrives in New York for a very short visit, his head full of every New York film he has ever seen, and extra excited to be coming face to face with his absconding father for the very first time at the latter’s wedding. Reluctantly meeting him is Dujonna Gift’s Robin (pictured below), the bride’s sister, who has a more prosaic view of life and of what it takes to survive in the big city.Dujonna Gift in 'Two Strangers .... ' She thinks her job is done when she’s taken him to his scuzzy hotel: he wants them to hit the town together. Eventually, Robin agrees that he can come along as she picks up the wedding cake from Brooklyn. Following the rules of all great rom-coms – Richard Curtis’s shadow hovers throughout – they don’t exactly hit it off at the beginning.

Tutty has already made a name for himself via his Olivier Award-winning turn in Dear Evan Hansen, and it’s easy to see why. In an endearing performance, he revels in the fact that Dougal is like an untrained, impetuous puppy. Peering out from under floppy hair, he’s annoying, vulnerable, and touching all at the same time. He has always hero-worshipped from afar his millionaire Dad, who has done nothing to deserve it, while enjoying a strong, if over-protective, relationship with his mother. "We bicker. We do the crossword. We don’t have sex together," he explains to a rather startled Robin.

Gift has fewer funny lines as the bruised Robin, but she proves a good sardonic foil to Dougal’s enthusiasm. She, too, was brought up without a father and knows what it’s like to live in a city that celebrates the rich and despises the poor. She shares her rundown apartment with a rat, and scrapes a living by working in a Manhattan coffee shop. If there is more to life, she is hoping to find it on Tinder.

There were moments when I wondered whether we were really going to spend two hours watching the pair stumbling on their differences as they carry a cake across New York. Luckily, the cake is soon abandoned and even – somewhat predictably – partially destroyed. But if the cake sinks, the relationship sweetens. Any realism is abandoned as the pair eventually head out determined to max out Dougal’s dad’s credit card, and ending up very much worse for wear in the Plaza Hotel.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is a triumph as the duo plunge from one experience to the next. A single case spins round on the carousel, while piles of bigger cases, looking like skyscrapers, dominate the stage, various lids opening up to create a Chinatown restaurant, the coffee shop where Robin works, or a suite at the Plaza.

Having recently seen two big music names, Rufus Wainwright and PJ Harvey, failing to get to grips with the basics of writing songs for the theatre, I can report relief at enjoying the way in which Jim Barne and Kit Buchan have written songs which actually carry the story forward, and in which one knows more about the characters at the end of a song than at the beginning. The music is varied to suit both character and situation. That includes Dougal imagining hanging out with the father he’s never met in "Dad": "Maybe we could grab a beer together and catch a game together". Or Robin in "What’ll It Be?" revealing just how hard she is paddling under the water to stay afloat.

Over a long development period, Barne and Buchan were helped by a thoroughly deserved Stiles and Drewe MTI Mentorship Award, and it will be fascinating to see what the two do next. Their script is rueful and clever, without ever being too sentimental, and Tim Jackson’s production skilfully stirs all the ingredients together, helped by two scrumptious performances. Dougal and Robin will surely be carrying that cake across New York for some time to come.

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