Review: Evolve

"It very much feels like the director and writer didn’t know when to stop brainstorming and start scripting until far too late in the day."
“It very much feels like the director and writer didn’t know when to stop brainstorming and start scripting until far too late in the day.”

This weeks offering from the barn is Evolve, written by Simone Ibbett-Brown. Whilst student written plays are commonplace within the barn, student written musicals are a whole different kettle of fish. Evolve marks the first time in over two years that anyone has attempted this ambitious feat, but unfortunately the risk hasn’t entirely paid off.

Evolve tells the story of Robert (played by William Descrettes), a software engineer who suddenly writes some incredibly important computer coding (a program called Evolve). However, various complications lead to him having to lie about his having the rights to that patent, and problems arise. This is where the first serious issue with the play appears – the script.

The plot of this story is, from the get go, never quite clear. Various things happen to Robert over the course of an hour and a half, but we’re often not entirely sure why they do. Not only do the events not make much sense, but the way in which the story is delivered to us is extraordinarily problematic. Exposition is clunky and awkward, characters are prone to going into sudden emotional outbursts (apparently) on a whim, and long silences abound. The script itself was devised during rehearsals by the whole team – a fantastic and wonderful idea – but it very much feels like the director and writer didn’t know when to stop brainstorming and start scripting until far too late in the day.

The talent on stage is mixed. That is not to say that some people on stage aren’t talented, they all are; it is clear that there is a lot of vocal ability here. The big issue I found was that it seemed far too often that the singing had been so heavily rehearsed that the acting itself was forgotten about. Many times I heard the start of a song whilst writing a note down and got very excited by the quality of it, only to look up and see that the character appeared to not be acting along with their voice.

This is not to say that the play is entirely flawed. Joe Mackenzie and Jamie Bowman add some much needed comic relief to the piece, and the way they bounce off each other is very enjoyable and believable. The singing is also of a very high standard (particularly the harmonies achieved by the ‘chorus’ of five), and the songs themselves are very well crafted; they’re distinct and different, while at the same time still retaining the overall feel of the same show – a task which is not easy to do. The opening of Act II is also very good. It is a scene where a hundred different things appear to be happening at once; everyone is on stage together all singing and speaking different bits, often simultaneously, and it is executed with such energy and near-perfect timing that it’s stunning. If only the rest of the show had been that exciting to watch.

Overall, the greatest faults of the play are twofold. Firstly, it was too ambitious; to write a musical about computer programming that is devised by the entire team in under nine weeks is a fiendishly difficult task, especially in that small a time frame while people are also trying to concentrate on their degrees. And that leads me on the second point; lack of direction. It’s very clear from watching that the point at which devising stopped and scripting began happened far too late in the day. Actors don’t know what to do while they’re singing. One scene in particular was so stomach-turningly awkward that I wanted to leave the barn. What the play tries to achieve is admirable, but sadly it just hasn’t worked this time.

2 thoughts on “Review: Evolve

  1. Edd, I saw this musical on Friday night, I believe the same night as you, and I couldn’t disagree more with most of what you say. I do agree that this was very ambitious, especially given the time frame. As far as the story is concerned though, the egalitarian script writing works well, and makes absolute sense to me – have you never come across the obsessive soul (Robert in this instance) who neglects everything else in his or her life (primarily Sarah and Eric here) because of that obsession? I could quote any number of artists, musicians, composers that come under the ‘tortured soul’ umbrella, or try Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture for a novel that this particular production evokes. William Descrettes pulls this characterisation off beautifully. Events that make little sense to you, Edd, make absolute sense to me in this context. The fraught relationships between the three lead characters, Robert, his wife and his brother-in-law / best friend, were expressed evocatively and painfully in ‘emotional outbursts’ and ‘long silences’, and passionately through some sublime and powerful vocals from all three – the drama was in the singing and more ‘acting’ would have been over-acting – casting and direction was absolutely spot on. I gasped at Robert’s outburst when he struck his wife, and I struggled to hold back tears at Sarah’s song that followed. I chuckled along with the audience at moments of comic relief. To evoke both sadness and amusement in a relatively short production is what I call good writing and good performing. I agree that the songs are extremely well crafted and that the challenging task of combining distinct and different genres convincingly in one production, whilst managing to retain the overall feel of the show was quite an achievement. And incredibly, I still find myself, on Monday morning, humming the closing song that I heard at this production on Friday night – that really does say something about the power of this music and this musical. I’ve seen endless West End productions of all sorts and standards, and with a little tweaking and a bit of polish, I would happily pay to see this one again in the West End. Quite frankly, I wonder whether the writer of this review, Edd, didn’t know when to stop scripting and start watching and listening to this production. Perhaps if you’d have paid a little more attention to what was happening ‘on stage’ than writing notes in your book, you might have appreciated it as much as I did. Congratulations, Simone Ibbett-Brown, the cast and crew of Evolve! I loved it.

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