Singing the praises of The Barn Theatre is becoming something of a habit for us and it doesn’t look like we’ll be breaking that habit any time soon. So here we are again with our most glowing review yet for their latest digital offering; the return of Matthew Harvey’s song cycle Now Or Never. Having missed this when it ran live for one night only, we were delighted to hear that it was returning for a on-demand run. And after watching it this week we are wholeheartedly recommending this very special show to anyone in need of a musical theatre fix.
Marking the first collaboration between The Barn Theatre and associate artist Matthew Harvey, Now Or Never is a pandemic-inspired production which, refreshingly, isn’t about Covid at all. Instead it is centred around an Earth threatening solar flare which sees a series of characters facing their own mortality as they consider what to do with what might be the last week of their lives. Presented as a non-stop, one-shot, song-cycle, the shows sees a single camera navigating the entire theatre building as it visits a series of separate spaces to hear each of the individual stories, before the cast come together in an uplifting and incredibly moving finale.
We have watched a lot of digital theatre over the last year and can honestly say that we are struggling to think of anything that tops this production. Like many other musical theatre fans, we started off watching all the archive productions that were hastily thrown online a year ago, feeling glad to have something to watch but always left with a bittersweet feeling as the cameras panned over the audience. We learned to love live Zoom productions as they give you that sense of connection between actor and audience, but Zoom theatre is a very different medium. More recently, we have seen some very polished recorded productions, including several put out by The Barn themselves. Some have come close to replicating the traditional theatre experience, particularly those which are set on a stage and performed live, making you feel as if you are in the front row (which, as regular readers will know, is where you will pretty much always find us). But however well a stage production is filmed, it tends to leave you wishing that you had been there to witness the performance in person. And that is what is so special about Now Or Never. It doesn’t do that. Instead, it does something that couldn’t be done if the show was performed in person. And by not attempting to replicate the experience of being in a theatre, it actually left us with the feeling that we would normally get from being there.
Of course, no clever concept or fancy filming will work if the music doesn’t stand up, but each and every one of Harvey’s songs is beautifully crafted, telling a story in its own right while also fitting within the wider piece. It’s a brilliant piece of work which is reminiscent of the musical style of Jason Robert Brown and also gave us Rent vibes. Those who are unsure about song cycles might also be reassured that the the overarching narrative in Now Or Never makes it feel more cohesive than, for example, Songs For A New World, in which songs are more loosely linked together by a broad concept. (Mrs Mummy described Now Or Never as “Doomsday Love Actually The Musical”!) The choice to make it about something other than Covid pays off. It resonates for today’s audience without feeling as if it will (hopefully!) become irrelevant in the not too distant future. The characters are relatable and there will be something in it for everyone. For us (as a family with three rescue cats with only 11 legs between them) we definitely saw ourselves in Katie Shearman’s comedic number “I’m Getting a Dog”, while Mrs Mummy also particularly enjoyed Courtney Stapleton and Eloise Davies singing “Let’s Skip Town”, declaring that “lesbians always improve a musical”. And we’re sure that many other audience members will feel a sense of solidarity with Ahmed Hamad’s character as he quits his job mid-video call. On a more serious note, as the camera moves round the building and gives us a glimpse into the aspirations and reflections of seven ordinary people, it’s hard not to consider what you would want to do if you had little time left. And as the cast assemble defiantly on the Barn stage for “Whatever Happens Next” there is a real sense of hope that we will be able to do it.
Now Or Never was first streamed live on 1 April 2021 and is available on demand from 15 April to 9 May 2021. We received complimentary press access.