BWW Review: SUPERHERO, Southwark Playhouse
Premiering at Southwark Playhouse, Superhero is a bittersweet, funny and genuinely moving musical about a dad fighting for custody of his daughter. Colin Bradley (Michael Rouse) recounts his journey through fatherhood recollecting the small victories, hilarious moments and painful mistakes of his life with Emily, his beloved daughter, and Christine, his ex-wife.
In a smart structure, with flashbacks in the middle of a speech given to the judge, writers Michael Conley (book), Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics) detail the struggle of a father who, after getting over his fears and worries about his role, is quite suddenly stripped of his rights and faced with the hard truth that "the court doesn't think fathers necessary". He goes from being Emily's primary caregiver to being able to see her once every fortnight and joining the Fathers For Justice movement.
With a score mainly consisting of ballads accompanied by strings and piano, Conley, Finlay and Hughes aim the spotlight on a subject too rarely discussed. There are ironic and witty songs like "Other Children Parents", which presents the strife of comparing a chaotic life with other people's seemingly perfect one, and "All American Dad", depicting Colin's blind disdain for Christine's new American partner and his fear of the influence he might have on her ("he'll teach her how to hold a gun and shoot up the school").
There's space, too, for more sombre and thoughtful pieces like "Old Father Thames" and "Don't Look Down" (which won The Stiles and Drewe Prize for Best New Musical Theatre Song in 2015).
Director Adam Lenson's work, combined with lighting designer Sam Waddington and sound designer Andy Hinton, is what makes the musical run smoothly and clearly through the various time jumps. Via interesting use of lighting and a slight echo, Colin travels from his memories with his family to the courtroom where he tries to convince the judge not to let Emily move to Los Angeles with her mother.
Rouse is thrilling in the role, carrying the one-man musical with energy and enthusiasm while displaying a heartfelt and deep sorrow as he sees his daughter being taken away from him. Exploring fatherhood and what it means, the affection and tenderness he conveys through the character of the lovable, messy man are a reminder of a role that is too often diminished in society.
As he remembers how his friends laughed when his wife asked him to take a step back from his job and be a stay-at-home dad so she could pursue a dream of hers, the audience is faced with an action that, albeit born out of pure love, is still regarded as strange.
Colin is warned by his solicitor against saying he loves Emily in front of the judge because "apparently it makes people uncomfortable when fathers say that". He is forbidden to assert his devotion to his daughter, whom he adores, probably in order not to cloud his masculinity.
Superhero gently tackles the sexism and veiled prejudice that fathers have to endure and that stem from the hierarchy created by a patriarchal society which placed the male parent above the family and doesn't allow him to feel. In doing so, it deprives men of the joys of a role mothers are instead almost overwhelmed by, creating an unfair imbalance on both parts. No parent who watches their own child is merely babysitting: "Children need fathers, but fathers need children too".
Photo credit: Alex Brenner.