A Musical With Emotional Drive: ‘The Mad Ones’ Review

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The Mad Ones
The Mad Ones

★★★★

Making its UK premiere at Birmingham’s Old Joint Stock pub and theatre, The Mad Ones follows soon-to-be college student Sam (Dora Gee) as she struggles with the direction she wants her life to take. She has often followed in the wake of her best friend, Kelly (Safia Bartley), but after Kelly is killed in a car accident, Sam finds herself drifting. Until this point her life has been a muddle of her mother’s expectations and college deposits and quotes from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. She has always been able to be braver with Kelly, and now it seems she’s forgotten how. 

The play’s cast is one of its biggest strengths. Starring only four people—Gee and Bartley alongside Thea Jo-Wolfe as Sam’s mother and Ryan Bartholomew as Adam—an astronomically high standard is maintained throughout, both in terms of acting and vocals. Gee and Bartley have several heart-wrenching, belting numbers that both cement their characters’ friendship into a compelling, believable one and mark them as outstanding actors. Perhaps one of the most long-awaited, for those who first found the musical online when it went viral, was ‘Go Tonight’, the song in which Sam allows herself to really mourn Kelly. Gee truly shines in this song, tapping into the fear and longing at the heart of Sam’s character, all accompanied beautifully by live instrumentals. This is a very musically clever show—the motifs within ‘Go Tonight’ have already echoed throughout the show before this point, but have never been allowed to fully unfurl until this song, when Sam lets them.

As tragic as parts of The Mad Ones’ story are, there are also many uplifting moments. Bartholomew has a wonderful comedic turn as Sam’s boyfriend Adam, the kind of guy who keeps his comic book duvet set on the bed when his girlfriend visits and doesn’t always know quite what to say. Bartley too captures the show’s wit with confidence and a brazen quality, despite playing a character who we mainly see in Sam’s subconscious rather than as a living person. 

The venue itself is an intimate one that lends itself well to the confessional nature of the show. Scenes in which Sam seems to be speaking half to the audience work better than they might were she on a raised stage, distanced from the viewer. Everybody is at the same ground level as the actors, letting them pace around the edges of the performance space and look you right in the eye. For a show that is about Sam struggling to be honest with herself and others, it feels both ironic and just right—she is being observed from all sides and is quite literally forced to look everybody in the eye as she tells her true feelings. 

At the same time, one wonders if the venue also distracts from the show slightly. Parts of the stage are easily obscured when sat behind someone, and while seating is restricted to only two rows it sometimes feels as if the space this frees up for the actors could be used more effectively, rather than the action being confined mostly to centre-stage. The set—a set of four car seats that can be reclined to form a bed—is an innovative one, but finds itself slightly lost with how much room there is to move. It will be interesting to see how the show’s stage directions and choreography develop now that it has successfully made its UK debut.

Now that this underrated gem of a musical is being performed in the UK, it will be exciting to see how far it goes. 

The Mad Ones will be performed at The Old Joint Stock until 20 April. 

Words by Casey Langton


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