Move over, jukebox musicals, for in The Distance You Have Come we have what I’m going to call a ‘jukebox song cycle’. Because it’s not what I’d call a musical, by any means, but it’s also not strictly what I understand a song cycle to be; usually song cycles are individual numbers that are designed to be performed all together, in sequence, and generally share a theme in their content. To create The Distance You Have Come, composer Scott Alan has taken a selection of his songs from across his back catalogue and attempted to divine a path through them, following the lives of six characters: Brian (Andy Coxon), Samuel (Adrian Hansel), Maisey (Emma Hatton), Anna (Jodie Jacobs), Joe (Dean John-Wilson), and Laura (Alexia Khadime).
Brian and Samuel are hopeless romantics, who find in each other the soulmate they’ve always wanted – and see the chance to finally create the life they’ve dreamed of. Maisey is an actress who longs for stage success, Joe is in a downward spiral and reliant on alcohol, Anna is unlucky in love but has resolved to keep going, and Laura is contending with her own struggles – but finds an unlikely way to keep herself afloat.
I generally tend to struggle with song cycles, as they often feel like unfinished work; as if the composer would really like to have written a musical, but they either don’t have the skills to write the book, or couldn’t find someone else who could do it for them. Though at least when the songs are designed to be performed as a set then there’s a decent chance of some sort of story coming through – unfortunately there’s no hope of that in The Distance You Have Come. Songs may be able to express particular emotions, and potentially tell a little story within itself, but without dialogue alongside them it proves impossible to portray a coherent storyline (especially with six characters to think of).
The many, many songs in this show are plucked from Alan’s eight albums and thrust into a new order. There is the tiniest amount of dialogue added in at a couple of points (earning Alan a generous book credit), but it manages to be rather cringeworthy and doesn’t address the fact that the story as a whole is unintelligible; though the actors are given specific character names, at certain points it’s unclear whether they’re constantly in that role or if they’re stepping in as a different character for a particular song (for example, is it Maisey in the wedding dress or is Hatton just playing Joe’s ex?). The ambiguity makes it an infuriating watch.
I’m all for there being variety and a bit of light & shade, however there are some seismic shifts in tone that simply don’t work. Jumping from Laura’s heartbreak in Now to Anna joking around about forgetting a guy’s identity (but remembering his looks) in His Name, followed by dark & disturbing themes in Joe’s Quicksand, doesn’t work for me – it cheapens the serious content around it, but also spoils the moment of respite from all the depressing stuff that forms a good chunk of the show. The fairytale theme that appears every now and then is also a bit nauseating for my tastes.
I’m quite not sure of the benefits of performing it in the round. The performers appeared to have radio mics on them, however either there were technical difficulties at the show I attended or someone chose not to use them – with no amplification it’s almost impossible to hear someone who’s singing facing the opposite direction to you, and the solos are drowned out by the group backing vocals. As if more obstacles to what’s going on are needed! Hopefully it was just a technical glitch, but it’s something to bear in mind before you pay the rather expensive (for Off West End) ticket prices.
Though if you’re partial to a song cycle, and a fan of Scott Alan’s work, then I’m sure you’ll love this show; the songs may not be especially memorable, but they are rather beautiful – and wonderfully arranged by Scott Morgan, creating a sound for the show that does give it some unity. The cast are all incredibly talented, and most will be familiar to regular West End theatregoers; their vocal performances are stunning and are what, for me, really injects this piece with emotion.
My verdict? An infuriating show that, despite the title, doesn’t really go anywhere – stunning vocals & beautiful arrangements are let down by a lack of coherence.
The Distance You Have Come runs at The Cockpit until 28 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.