BWW Review: FLOYD COLLINS, Wilton's Music Hall

BWW Review: FLOYD COLLINS, Wilton's Music Hall

BWW Review: FLOYD COLLINS, Wilton's Music HallFloyd Collins has a dream - as Americans have through the centuries. Standing every day above the world's largest cave system in his old Kentucky home, he believes that if he can descend into that underworld just one more time, he might find the cave that will make his fortune, the tourist destination for the new generation of Ford Model T drivers to visit.

And Floyd does find it, a vast cathedral of a space that, with a staircase carved from the rock that separates it from the ground above to provide access, will bring prosperity to him and his family. In ecstasy, he ascends back through the "squeezes" already planning his proto-theme park - until he gets stuck and a rockfall pins his left foot. We know from the opening tableau that Floyd will not see daylight again.

In that summary, it sounds more toe-snapping than toe-tapping, and hardly an enticing prospect for a musical - but that is reckoning without Adam Guettel's extraordinary music and lyrics and Tina Landau's flawed, fabulous book. There's a rich seam of material indeed, but there are so many ways the show can fail (as it often has in the 22 years since its premiere) but under the crystal clear directing of Jonathan Butterell, as gifted a cast as one could find anywhere in London have surely made the definitive version of this epic theatrical event.

A digression. At 18 years of age, I was tremendously affected by the incident that led to the death of Alfredo Rampi in 1981, vowing never to have any commitment to organised religion after such unspeakable suffering, my stomach turned by the priests in attendance. Twenty-nine years later, I watched in wonder, tears in my eyes, as the Chilean miners were rescued after 69 days underground. Both incidents (and there have been others) attracted the kind of media attention that suggests I am not alone in feeling the impact of such disasters very keenly - if a 21st-century Floyd Collins were to find himself in his antecedent's predicament, I suspect the world would react in a similar fashion 91 years on. Being underground is both terrifying and strangely seductive in a way that flying, for example, is not.

Back to the show. The music grows from the geography of the land and the people who hew their living from it. There's bluegrass of course and other variants of country weaving in and out of the score, a sensational barbershop opener for Act Two ("Is That Remarkable"), power ballads (Floyd's soaring "The Call" as he imagines his life transformed by his discovery) and luscious laments ("Through the Mountain").

More than the individual songs, which are more Sondheimian in their clever complexity rather than catchy as Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers, would write, the music creates an eerie off-centred atmosphere, an otherness I last felt in Ry Cooder's soundtrack for another story set in a closed world located in the southern states, Walter Hill's movie, Southern Comfort - after that, banjos are never the same again.

A very impressive eight-piece band, under conductor Tom Brady, complements some of the finest singing I've heard on the London stage. Ashley Robinson is a wonderfully human Floyd, with a smile and a voice that could light up the most Stygian gloom and physically capable of standing above us (but "below" us of course) a Christ-like figure for almost the entire duration of the show. He gets great support from the ensemble cast, in which Samuel Thomas stands out as Floyd's conflicted brother Homer and Rebecca Trehearn brings her soaring soprano to the role of Nellie, his slow but loyal sister.

A word too for Daniel Booroff, who is utterly convincing as reporter Skeets Miller, perhaps the only decent one left when the media circus picks up and Francesco Lo Giudice, who shares looks, singing voice and guitar stylings with a young James Taylor no less.

There are few moments of relief in this gut-wrenching examination of so much that is good and bad in humanity, but I had to smile when a celebrity is reported to be helping with the rescue effort - reminding me of Sting's cameo in the classic Simpsons episode Radio Bart, the plot of which shares many parallels with this one.

Ultimately one leaves this unique venue - its qualities never having been exploited to better effect - reflecting less on the windows to the soul that the show has opened up, more on the remarkable nature of theatre. It's rare that absolutely everything comes together as powerfully as it does in Floyd Collins but when the stars do all align, it makes for a truly magical evening. Do not miss it!

Floyd Collins continues at Wilton's Music Hall until 15 October

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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