Southwark Playhouse – until 18 June 2022
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Lift is a weird and wonderful musical full of heart that leaves you with a big goofy smile on your face.
Set in the lift of Covent Garden underground station, Gabriel, a busker (Luke Friend), spends the 54 second journey imagining the lives of the other people crammed into the lift with him. Unable to move on from the end of his relationship with Sarah a year ago (he still carries around her Dear John letter), he uses these scenarios to work through his own grief. One of the people in the lift is a woman whose smile as she drops money in his hat has inspired him, and he is desperate to know her name, but cannot summon the courage to talk to her.
Since playing at Soho Theatre in 2013, writers Craig Adams and Ian Watson have worked to clarify the busker’s story. Having not seen the earlier production, it was extremely pleasing that it still takes a while to realise what exactly is going on, dropping breadcrumbs (or sometimes entire loaves) to enable the audience to figure out the plot. At first, I had no clue, just enjoying the fabulous songs and the first few scenes – but just when you think you’ve got a handle on the show, along come the avatars to scramble your brains.
The characters the busker fantasises about are a gay ballet dancer whose life in London is hidden from his Yorkshire family and his friend who pays for ballet school by providing dominatrix sessions, a teacher of French who is mystified when her girlfriend buys her a session with the dominatrix, a businessman and his secretary (the woman the busker is obsessed with), and two stereotypical American tourists. With every character named Gabriel, Sarah or K as projections of his grief, the relationship woes and personal revelations the characters work through are all steps on the path to healing for the busker, finally enabling him to leave the lift and finish his song.
The incredible cast lift the roof of the theatre with soaring vocals and sublime harmonies. Craig Adams’ music and lyrics are brought to life with energy and style, and Ian Watson’s witty and soulful book enables the cast to get their teeth into some emotional scenes. Most characters get one big solo, and wow, the cast take their moment in the spotlight with style. Luke Friend is a vocal powerhouse as the busker but then also manages to convincingly shrink into himself when he is not singing and becomes a melancholy bystander as he watches his creations. Hiba Elchikhe impresses as the secretary finally realising that her boss does not see her and grasping her freedom. Marco Titus is fantastic as her boss, and his strange online dating scenes with the ballet dancer (Cameron Collins) are a hoot. Collins is a revelation – flipping between cartoonish simulated sex and heartfelt despair in the course of a verse – simply wonderful. Tamara Morgan manages to steal every scene as the dominatrix, spitting out hilarious one-liners as people dump their troubles on her. Her scenes with Kayleigh McKnight are tender and hilarious, with both actors bringing heart and soul to the barely sketched characters. The characters are enigmatic and not fully rounded, but that is as it should be if they are all the busker’s creations. Speaking of enigmatic, Jordan Broatch and Chrissie Bhima as the avatars of online dating are bizarrely magnetic. Their evolution towards real feelings is a joy to watch as Annie Southall’s choreography takes them on their journey. Southall’s choreography works brilliantly with Andrew Exeter’s ingenious design under Dean Johnson’s canny direction – taking us from the crowded lift to a rainy day in London, to a whistle stop tour of the city’s sights.
Lift is joyous – heartfelt and thoughtful soul-searching packed with incredible songs. Hold the doors – this is a ride you don’t want to miss