Henry Box Brown

Thu 9th – Sun 26th August 2018

reviews

Ella Kemp

at 21:11 on 17th Aug 2018

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At a festival full of small rooms in dark bars, a Broadway transfer in a 788-seat room takes a huge risk that had better pay off. From the moment I entered the Assembly Rooms’ Music Hall and saw the fake fluttering fire place and flimsy laundry line, I wasn’t sure whether the risk would pay off for ’Henry Box Brown’.

Taking on the landmark true story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virgina slave who shipped himself off to abolitionists in order to escape his fate, the musical maps out Brown’s life all the way from childhood to freedom. It draws out the exhaustive landscape of categoric segregation and domestic slavery with an all-singing/sort-of-acting ensemble, playing both sides of the conflict.

It’s not a negligible story. There’s a need to talk about what happened, to celebrate progress and demand change — but this production was not the one to do it. There’s a disconnect between the best intentions with crystal clear singing voices and the haphazard technicalities that prevent ‘Henry Box Brown’ from offering the invigoration that it supposedly believes in.

The performers half-heartedly talk to each other and let their eyes wander when they’re not the centre of attention. All eyes pretend to focus on Henry most of the time, but there’s no escaping the unconvincing support from the actors playing his friends and masters - where loyalty and vitriol should be obvious, the human relations at stake feel slightly stale.

There’s little development in the way of credible emotional angst. The show seems to rely on the fact that its source material is true, not giving enough attention to the non-singing performances or much imagination in the way of staging or design. Groups walk on and off stage out of character when their bits are over, making the artificiality of the production all the more noticeable and somewhat disappointing.

Books have been written and songs have been sung for Henry. This production has a good heart, but suffers from stilted insincerity, ultimately failing to deliver the punch that finally, thankfully, got the abolitionist the freedom he had always deserved.

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Georgina Macrae

at 01:45 on 18th Aug 2018

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Musicals have all sorts of crucial elements, and none are disastrous in ‘Henry Box Brown’ – but none are spectacular. I credit the cast for its great chorus moments – they occasionally create walls of brilliant sound. But these moments are not accompanied by either memorable words or music, and the story-line itself lacks sound construction.

The beginning of the play provides a lot of narrative, explaining the historical context and the character’s relationships with (and expectations from) one another. This works, in part, but it depends too heavily on narration. This dependence breaks the action up and prevents much rhythm.

Paul Gee has a wonderful voice and great expression. He is commanding, and he inspires both care and sympathy. For me, the other stand-out performance was by Amaris Harney, who plays various parts, starting as Henry’s mother, then taking part in a chorus and as one of his children, amongst other things. Her energy and wit, plus her heartbreak when Henry is sold rather than freed (as previously promised by their master) are strong. I think that the musical uses her well as a recurring face in most of the scenes.

Good voices and a compelling company dynamic give this show three stars, but there are no songs which I can remember or recommend, and the plot remained a bit disjointed after the heavily-narrative start. The priest, for example, enters the play and then sings, with almost no explanation, introduction, or reason. Writing this, I realise that my comment almost suggests that maybe they needed more narration throughout – but this crutch would not be necessary in a great musical!

My expectations were high going in, but I was downcast when it did not hold together as had been promised. This musical has some potential, but lacks magic in both its plot and music.

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