Review of Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel at Wilton's Music Hall

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

There can be no greater gift to modern musical theatre than composer Adam Guettel whose remarkable work favours quality over quantity, and is welcomed to London once again in a production of his 1996 work Floyd Collins. Together with book writer Tina Landau, the pair have crafted a sensitive exploration of an overlooked corner of America that blends the human condition with the human fight for survival and a community's need to come together during challenging moments. Simple in its narrative yet complex in its delivery Floyd Collins remains an intriguing and incredibly moving account of a caver in 1920s Kentucky who becomes trapped deep in a cave, inadvertently spawning America's first media sensation.

This is a production that is sensitively and careful handled, from director Jonathan Butterell's inventive staging to Tom Brady's incredible music direction that blends an impressive band with onstage musicians and some of the finest leading voices to be currently heard in London. Against the haunting framework of Wilton's Music Hall the space adds yet another dimension to an already overwhelming text, drawing out the theatricality of the piece and providing an authentic atmosphere and acoustic. Rick Fisher's lighting design is exquisite throughout, and whilst it may not be quite as perfect a setting as the previous London production in the old Southwark tunnels, it certainly makes best of a case for cementing Wilton's firmly on London's off-West End map.

Guettel's score is hauntingly authentic, blending the worlds of American folk with the best of musical theatre style and structure. Deliciously orchestrated it blends vocal gymnastics with clear and distinct lyrics that come firmly from character and situation and never slip into over sentimentality. Antiphonal in its delivery, you can't help feel totally absorbed by the sound created, and there are moments of pure joy that send shivers down your spine.

What the book lacks in driving drama it makes up for in heart and intuition. Landau manages to capture small-town America effortlessly, never trivialising their world but shining a spotlight onto a forgotten corner of society with great integrity and wit, never offering judgement or over simplification. Supporting characters may be thinly sketched, but we're offered enough of a glimpse into their environment to fill in these gaps ourselves.

Ashley Robinson is a fine match for Guettel's elastic score offering an intensely captivating performance as Floyd, totally committed physically, mentally and emotionally to the challenges the role presents. The key to this musical is in the exposition of Floyd's world, and he holds the audience firmly in his grasp throughout "The Call" as he descends beneath the earth, painting a rich visual and musical picture that effectively unlocks both his psyche and the world around him. It's never hard to imagine his predicament, and in doing so Robinson ensures you're fully connected to his tragic situation.

Rebecca Trehearn, one of our finest musical theatre performers, captures the innocence of Nellie Collins in a calm and uniquely understated way, becoming the most interesting character trapped above ground. Never hysterical and distinctly reserved she offers some of the score's most captivating musical moments with her crystal clear soprano and impressive authentic vocal ornamentations that breath further delight to Guettel's work. There's impressive support from Samuel Thomas as Floyd's brother Homer, and their moments of imagined and remembered joy add a much needed contrast to the ongoing rescue.

The show takes off in the second act as the circus, or carnival, descends on the small Kentucky town and the community becomes the focus of American press hysteria, projected throughout the country as the first mass media sensation. There's an outstanding delivery of the Act Two opener "Is That Remarkable?" by Joel Elferink, Christopher Jordan-Marshall and Alex Spinney which once again highlights the intricacies in Brady's musical direction, bouncing in close harmony to effectively change the tone of the tragedy as tensions heighten under closer scrutiny and the need to rescue Floyd trips from necessity to macabre observation.

Floyd's search for glory dictates his discovery and philosophy in life, and it remains a key idea through to the final moments where he questions and contemplates death in the transcendent "How Glory Goes" which allows a dramatic and emotional release for both character and audience. Just as glory called Floyd to his coffin it lifts him up in the final moments, and as an audience you're equally elevated to this level and leave the theatre strangely uplifted by this passionate, heartbreaking yet overwhelmingly positive display of the best in human nature. This is musical theatre in its finest and most refined form and is an unmissable treat.


Originally published on

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