Roar writer Isabelle Hickman reviews “Are You As Nervous As I Am?”, a small, admirable production that tries to be too many things at once.
TW: Domestic Abuse, Generational Trauma, Alcoholism, Disability, Addiction, Struggles with Sexuality.
“Are you as Nervous As I Am?” is a brand new British musical written by Simon Spenser, with music by Leighton James House and Shaun McKenna, and directed by Phoebe Barran. It follows the journey of two sisters – Peggy and Janet – as they leave behind their abusive mother and provincial Welsh town in search of love, freedom, and happiness.
With 16 rousing numbers that tackle themes of disability, sexuality, abuse, race, addiction, family secrets, fame, and breaking cycles of generational trauma whilst commenting on the emergent women’s rights movement in the 20th century, the show sets out to achieve a lot in its almost two and a half hour run time. Considering how small the production is, this ambition deserves to be commended. Yet, with so many big and complex topics and themes touched on or, at times, thrown in throughout the show, I couldn’t help but feel like the story’s core and its characters got swallowed in its own ambition.
The show has clear gaps – perhaps stemming from its overly ambitious nature. As an audience, we are catapulted from Peggy’s childhood in The Full Moon Pub to her journey of becoming a star, turning into a washed-up has-been, and then reclaiming her former stardom. Like the show’s cast, who sing throughout almost the entirety of the show, the musical is given very little time to breathe and deal with its subject matter sensitively. I felt that its rapid pace didn’t leave time for much nuance in the portrayal of its characters, many of which felt like caricatures or tropes with little depth or substance.
The most neglected of these characters had to be Janet – Peggy’s older sister – and Catrin – the sister’s mother. For a show that tries to deal with the effects of generational trauma and abuse, these relationships and these two characters felt lost, sacrificed for yet another song and dance about Peggy’s rise to stardom.
Emma Thornett plays the role of Janet with sincerity and a sense of eternal hope, reflecting her character’s optimism in less-than-ideal circumstances. Janet’s story of her struggles with her sexuality and later disability feels like it was thrown in to give the character a greater sense of purpose, creating an at times distracting secondary storyline which needed more fleshing out to feel relevant. The character of Catrine starts strong, her job as a sex worker and her blatant alcoholism clearly taking effect on a young Peggy in a shocking and abrupt first scene; however, as the show gets started, this is lost. Both characters could have done with their own songs to explain their deepest feelings, actions, and demons, not just asides or parts of songs sung over and with other characters.
Much of Act One centres around a romance between Peggy and a musician with a fading spotlight – Bob. Peggy meets Bob, a former idol of hers, whilst cleaning his house, quickly falling for him; however, Bob soon grows jealous of Peggy’s stardom, becoming controlling and falling into a spiral of abuse. At times this storyline didn’t quite work. This can be attributed to the lack of chemistry between Katie Elin-Salt – Peggy – and Bill Ward – Bob. I couldn’t believe this former star had swept the young and impressionable girl from the middle of nowhere off her feet. Although vocally and dramatically sound, Ward’s performance, especially in his later scenes, could have been more charming in Bob’s earlier appearances to make his abject violence even more shocking.
Overall, I felt that Act Two was more robust and enjoyable than Act One. The themes that the show was trying to tackle resonated better and the plot took an interesting turn, as Peggy goes from the abused to the abuser, reflecting her mother’s role, departing from the at times cliché story seen in Act One.
As much as the story has gaps and suffers from being overly ambitious, several elements of the show deserve to be commended. First and foremost, the cast all gave excellent performances. Katie Elin-Salt, who recently premiered her play “Celebrated Virgins” to glowing reviews, brilliantly portrayed the role of Peggy. Elin-Salt expertly takes Peggy from a bright-eyed, young starlet who accidentally stumbled into the limelight to a washed-up, troubled singer who just wants to be loved, encapsulated in the heart-wrenching “What the Hell is It For?”, by far (for me) the best song in the show.
The cast comprises excellent performers and vocalists; however, as Peggy, Elin-Salt vocally carries the show, living up to what I can only imagine is a demanding role. Also worth noting is Sarah Ingram, who brought the two minor parts of Catrin and Christine (Janet’s lover) to life, making every moment of theirs count with comedic yet moving flair.
Although small and simplistic, the set worked with the performance. The presence of alcohol on stage in the majority of scenes acted as a through-line from Peggy’s childhood to stardom, leaving a reminder of the lingering nature of generational trauma present throughout. The moments when the fourth wall was broken, and the audience became Peggy’s audience were immersive. The repeated image of Catrin appearing on stage, like a bad omen, as Peggy repeats her mother’s actions was a piece of inspired direction that I feel much more could have been done with, often with so much going on on stage, these were blink-and-you-miss-it moments.
“Much more could have been done” expresses my feelings about this new production. The musical succumbed to its ambition. But it shows promise. I feel that it could truly have been a spectacle. With some polish and finesse, perhaps even a bigger budget, this show could have the same gravitas and staying power as Miss Peggy Starr herself.
“Are You As Nervous As I Am?” is playing at the Greenwich Theatre until 23 October. You can book tickets here.