John & Jen

“John & Jen”
Book & Lyrics by Tom Greenwald
Book & Music by Andrew Lippa

Jen Tracy – Helen Evans
John Tracy, her brother / John, her son – Jon Hawkins

Petr Limonov (piano)
Benjamin Lee (viola)
Elizabeth Nantais – Musical Director

Christopher Lane – Director
Gail McVicar – Producer
Nell Knudsen – Designer
Scott McMullin – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 4 November, 2007
Venue: Finborough Theatre, London

The genesis of “John & Jen” goes back nearly twenty years when the writers were looking for a piece to showcase their talents. Tom Greenwald presented Andrew Lippa with the basis of this two-hander piece of music-theatre. Some time later when Lippa was assistant music director at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, they produced a half-hour version. When they had expanded it to full-length, the Goodspeed staged it. Since then it has played at many theatres and now receives its UK premiere at the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court.

The place is the US, the time the years between 1952 and 1990. Act One covers 1952 to 1971 and we see the state of the American union through the eyes and the lives of brother and sister John and Jen. There’s six years difference between them, Jen is the elder, so what she says goes. Somewhere there’s a hidden agenda, something unspeakable between the parents, with the father possibly abusing the mother as they are always fighting, while the kids stay as much out of earshot as they can.

John is always under his sister’s thumb and this state of affairs continues into Act Two after the brother is killed in Vietnam. Jen has now married although her husband has gone off to plait flowers in his hair or smoke dope. So Jen is alone with her son who she names after her dead brother. He wants to spend Christmas with his grandfather but Jen, remembering what he was like, thinks they will have more fun on their own. But life isn’t much fun for dysfunctional families and the same problems occur year in, year out. Whether this is a particular problem in the US or a universal truth is left to us to decide but Lippa and Greenwald paint a pretty disturbing, albeit ironic, picture of life for the ‘baby boomers’ after World War II.

There are nearly two-dozen songs in this tour de force of a two-hander, which actors Helen Evans and Jon Hawkins manage with great feeling and immense self-possession. They chart the growth from children to adulthood with skilled insight into the ways and the problems of the young growing up and how difficult the transition can be from adolescence to maturity.

The songs provide a panoply of different emotions in a mix of moods, which every so often revert to the recurring anthemic motto of “Think big”. It’s a touching piece that had the first-night audience wildly screaming for more as it is obviously a show that has an appeal for anybody and everybody who can identify with the theme and its characters.

  • John & Jen plays at the Finborough Theatre, Finborough Road, London SW5 on November 5, 11 & 12 and 18 & 19 at 7.30 p.m. There’s a post-show discussion with lyricist Tom Greenwald on 18 November
  • Tickets on 0844 847 1652 or 020 7244 7439

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