New musicals usually rise or fall by their book, and in the case of Muted, a highly original new work currently playing at The Bunker Theatre, it is this element, along with its narrative concept that captures your attention. Sarah Henley has crafted a story about a young musician who becomes muted after the death of his mother set to a modern score by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin that’s both compelling and convincing and whilst there’s certainly work to be done on defining the narratives and shaping the story arch, it’s in a highly promising position and is one of the most probing and rewarding new musicals of the year.
Originally presented under a previous title ‘After The Turn’, Muted displays the key workings of a collaborative process yet never feels conflicted or in search of an identity. It manages to feel modern without ever being irritating or pretentious - gone finally are we from new musicals that deal with first world problems for twenty-somethings in New York, instead this is a clever, arresting and gripping story that’s desperate to be heard.
In style and tone it sits somewhere between Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, and whilst not as emotively demanding or fine-tuned it has certainly found a similar level of originality in both its subject matter and its storytelling. There’s some padding in both plot and character and with the second act providing much of the development I wonder if it would be a tighter one act. For my money the main area of development lies between the characters of Michael and ex-girlfriend Lauren; I felt the piece wrestle with which character it wanted to place at the forefront. Whilst some juggling between the two early in the piece helps establish the loss of status quo, one of these strands needs to become dominant in order for it to have maximum impact, and the relationship between mother and son and nephew and uncle certainly could do with a re-focus.
Musically the score provides a number of tempting melodies but cries out for slightly more variation in order to really step up to the next level. Both music and lyrics are smart and never overblown or too full of themselves, another danger of original musical theatre. These are not cabaret songs strung together, instead they’re firmly rooted in context and are always narratively succinct.
The physical production confuses its visual metaphors, set around a paddling pool and swing that never quite justify their existence or hook into the central story. The open playing space works well with minimal props and fussiness, but some more specificity in terms of Jamie Jackson's direction would solidify its resolve.
Whilst it’s well sung the acting feels slightly laboured in the first act but settles more comfortably in the second where the broader strokes refine themselves to a level of dramatic depth. It never turns hysterical but the acting needs to appropriately match the stylised movement and the setting – sometimes the characterisation and gestures are too big and require reigning-in to fully deliver.
In the fantastically welcoming Bunker Theatre underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory in south London there’s a general air of excitement and artistic merit that outshines new venues of this ilk. Equal parts anarchical and professional the space shows extreme promise and this seems like the perfect match between production and venue. As the venue’s first musical there are clearly lessons to be learned with regards to sound design, balance and amplification, but on the whole this is handled more effectively that other long-time established venues.
There is an exciting life to be had for this piece but even at this stage it’s a fully commendable effort from all areas. A new British hit is born.