As a relative ‘newbie’ to London, I often find myself lost, confused and wandering the city’s streets hopelessly. Each new tube station presents a challenge and having no smart phone, I have relied on that iconic red, blue and white ‘A-Z of London’ street guide more times than I care to remember. I confess that despite the guide’s obvious importance, I never once stopped to consider the story of the people behind it – I couldn’t even claim to have been aware that there
The production is full of charm. The action takes place on a traverse stage, haphazardly decorated with hanging papers, pictures, books, doll-houses and other artefacts, bringing to mind a scrapbook or memory-chest.
Bohemian Pearsall leaves her husband and returns home to London after several years in Europe. After losing her way whilst walking to a dinner party, Pearsall decides that what the city needs more than anything is a clear and easy-to-use street guide. The narrative of the show alternates between Pearsall’s dogged attempts to map all of London and the more dramatic events of her family life – particularly the disastrous relationship between her Hungarian Jewish father, Sandor, and Irish Catholic mother, Bella.
The production is full of charm. The action takes place on a traverse stage, haphazardly decorated with hanging papers, pictures, books, doll-houses and other artefacts, bringing to mind a scrapbook or memory-chest. With a few judicious props (hat boxes, doors, stools), the ensemble amusingly conjures up all manner of London locations: taxis, trains, shops, houses, and so on. The effect is playful and fun, giving the show the feeling of a child’s pop-up book.
More importantly, Gwyneth Herbert’s music and lyrics are magnificent: by turns beautifully intimate, evocative, witty, rousing and toe-tapping. The clever words and melodies weave wonderfully through solos and ensemble pieces. The programme states that Herbert had never encountered musical theatre before starting work on this show, making her achievement all the more impressive.
Unfortunately, where the production fails is in depicting the reasons behind Pearsall’s passion for her street guide. Getting lost seems thin motivation for the action of a two and a half hour musical. Pearsall’s lack of motive translates into a fairly drama-free plot, which the creators have attempted to solve by introducing the tragic details of Pearsall’s family life. Whilst there is certainly plenty of drama in this history (philandering, alcoholism, insanity, emotional abuse, thwarted dreams), it is never satisfyingly related to the story of the creation of the street guide.
The production is, however, blessed by some excellent performers. Frances Ruffelle as Bella and Michael Matus as Sandor attack their roles with great gusto and charisma. They are particularly amusing in their early courtship. Stuart Matthew Price’s singing in ‘Can You Hear Me, Mama?’ is heart-breakingly good. Isy Suttie is affecting as Mrs. P, especially in the more dramatic Act Two, though her voice did not always seem up to the challenges of Herbert’s music.
Despite its faults, The A-Z of Mrs. P is a lovely exploration of a very ‘London’ story, which holds interest both for locals and those, like me, who are still relying on that trusty old map to find our way.