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Floyd Collins

Going underground


I’ve always said that physical pursuits were dangerous, and nowhere is this more evident than in Floyd Collins, Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical (with a book by Tina Landau) currently resident in the Southwark Playhouse Vaults.

Based on a true story, Floyd Collins was an early (and inadvertent) media star. In 1925, while trying to boost the business of his family’s land and subterranean cave system he became trapped. Discovered a day later only 50 metres from the entrance, he remained there for a week, with a building media circus lead by cub reporter ‘Skeets’ Miller who turned Floyd from small town adventurer to brief, bright star. As his fame grew, the chances of survival looked bleaker and bleaker. Shaft jokes aside, Guettel’s folk musical plumbs the depths of human endurance to dramatise the effects of media intrusion on a society facing massive change.

Guettel’s bluegrass infused score, including harmonica and banjo, is complex, sophisticated, and, under Tim Jackson’s baton, soars in the Vaults. Taking up a good quarter of the stage, this is one of the best orchestras heard on the Fringe and does justice to the intricacies of the music. However, it’s not always matched, either in quality or volume, by the cast.

On paper, the Vaults are the perfect venue for this tale – dank, cavernous, atmospheric, with a depth of playing area pretty much unparalleled on the London fringe. But too often, they either swallow the vocals (some dodgy miking going on) or are underused, with much of the action of Derek Bond’s production thrust forward. James Perkins’ design capitalises on the venue’s height, creating a tricksy, laddered world of caves and gullies and Sally Ferguson’s lighting becomes cleverly carnival-esque.

Glenn Carter, who once made a fine Jesus (Christ Superstar) on Broadway, plays Floyd as a rugged adventurer but seems curiously underwhelming – rather too weather worn to really convince as the eager young pup the score seems to imply. Jane Webster brings a rich, controlled voice to the care-worn step mother and Ryan Sampson’s Skeets, with a diminutive stature but a presence and spirit to fill the Vaults, is a haunted presence, staggering the space, horrified at the monster he has created.

Maybe I just don’t get it. For me, Floyd Collins lacks the heart and structure of Guettel’s other major work, The Light in the Piazza, and this production misses some of the show’s gaping emptiness. It seems somehow cluttered, lacking a sense of the hole that Floyd’s absence leaves behind. But, like Sondheim (for whom Floyd Collins is the show he wishes he’d written), it’s up to the audience to decide.

3/5

Words: Dan Usztan (@usztan)

Floyd Collins is at Southwark Playhouse Vaults, London, until 31 March

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