Musicals never cease to amaze on the breadth of their subject material. A musical about a man who gets trapped while exploring a cave and slowly dies while attempts to rescue him fail may seem an unlikely song and dance show, but is it any more bizarre than roller skating trains, singing nuns, or a singing, knife-wielding barber?
Based on the real-life tragedy of explorer Floyd Collins, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s 1996 musical pushes the boundaries of musical construction much as Collins pushed his limits of exploration. A mix of gospel, bluegrass and at times a more discordant score, it’s not easy listening and requires work from its audience. Put that work in, however, and you are rewarded with a piece that both haunts and moves.
While an American legend, the story of Floyd Collins is less well known here. Exploring the cave system of Kentucky in 1925, Collins became trapped deep underground. Above ground a media circus soon ensured the unfolding drama was being followed step by step across America. Much like today, facts were sometimes an inconvenient truth and the story became more important than the victim.
Derek Bond’s production doesn’t shy away from the relevancy to today and one can’t help thinking back to more recent events such as the Chilean mining rescue. Bond also makes effective use of Southwark Playhouse’s trump card, the cavernous brick arches underneath London Bridge station. Strewn with ladders and crates, James Perkin’s design makes full use of the entire depth of the arches to provide an atmospheric, echoing backdrop to this caving tale. As the sound of trains rumble overhead it seems to echo the cadence of the score.
Actors and sound emerge from the distant shadows and full use is made of the reverberation in the tunnels. A gospel fuelled Ballad of Floyd Collins weaves in and out of the story as solos merge into choral and echo around the cavern.
Glenn Carter’s Floyd Collins impresses. Immobile for much of the performance it’s a performance of building frustration and dashed hope but one tempered with the understanding of a man at one with his environment. There’s also fine performances from Ryan Sampson as the cub reporter ‘Skeets’ Miller who first breaks the story but also becomes the first person to really connect with Floyd and Gareth Chart as Floyd’s brother, Homer – torn between a determination to free his sibling on his terms and the tempting lights of stardom.
Tim Jackson’s musical direction revels in the banjo- and accordion-fuelled score, but also provides plenty of rhythmic underscore to build tension. Occasionally the sound balance in the Playhouse vaults does mean some lyrics are lost under the music, which is a shame as these tend to be in the more intimate moments.
This is by no means an easy production and, given the atmospheric setting of the vaults, one that it is difficult to imagine now being played on a conventional stage. That, though, is its strength, theatre and musicals should never be afraid of tacking unconventional settings and topics. Why not play this production in actual caves, basement car parks or echoing warehouses? – Floyd Collins wasn’t afraid of adventure, nor should theatre be.