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A CurtainUp London London Review
Floyd Collins

by Sebastian King

He’s always saying we’re a fine pair, because my head’s in the clouds, and his is in the dirt. — Nellie
Floyd Collins
Floyd Collins cast members
(Photo: Robert Workman)
Since opening at the beginning of last year, Southwark Playhouse’s Vault Space has played host to a range of productions, giving them an extraordinary sense of atmosphere that a conventional theatre space would struggle to achieve. Although it has already hosted brilliant productions of musicals Company and Parade, it is hard to think of a musical more appropriate to stage in this cavernous tunnel than Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s 1994 musical Floyd Collins, based on the true story of the cave explorer who became trapped deep underground.

Set in 1920s Kentucky, the musical opens with our eponymous hero (Glenn Carter) setting off to explore a new entrance to Crystal Cave, underneath his family’s farm. In a particularly narrow tunnel, he dislodges a rock which falls onto his foot, leaving him completely unable to move. As his family and friends start a rescue operation, news of Floyd’s entrapment spreads and they find themselves at the centre of a media circus, while Floyd himself reflects on his situation, sharing moments of reflection with his optimistic and determined brother Homer (Gareth Chart), reporter ‘Skeets’ Miller (Ryan Sampson) and his sister Nellie (Robyn North) who has just been discharged from the local asylum.

Guettel’s ambitious score draws heavily on the bluegrass music of its Kentucky setting, and the marvellous on-stage band includes a banjo, harmonica and cowbell. However, it also takes us down unexpected twists and turns, at times echoing Stravinsky and Sondheim, the latter of whom once said that Floyd and Homer’s Act 1 finale ‘The Riddle Song’ is one of the songs he wishes he’d written – high praise indeed! There are sumptuous complex harmonies in the full-company numbers, and a recurring yodelling motif sung by Floyd is particularly evocative.

As Floyd, Glenn Carter exudes a certain amount of charm and charisma, but at times his performance doesn’t quite reach the audience. However, the show is carried by a universally strong supporting cast, with Robyn North’s lost-soul Nellie and Ryan Sampson’s exuberant Skeets particularly standing out, and a trio of reporters (Roddy Peters, Vlack Ashton and Dayle Hodge) bring some much needed comedy with their Act 2 opening number. However, it is Gareth Chart’s Homer that drives this production, and his duets with Carter give the show some of its most moving moments.

James Perkins’s resourceful set uses boxes, platforms and ladders to create a network of underground tunnels, and Sally Ferguson’s stunning lighting takes full advantage of the vast railway arches behind the stage, which seem to stretch for miles. The Vault has a tricky acoustic and unfortunately the sound balance in this instance was not quite right. From where I was sitting, the eight-piece band often threatened to drown out the singers, and a great deal of lyrics – particularly in the first half – were very difficult to hear.

At its heart, Floyd Collins is a touching portrait of an ordinary family, whose lives are changed forever by tragedy. This production may have its flaws, but its strong cast and remarkable setting still provide a rare and exciting opportunity for an audience to experience this haunting and challenging musical.

Floyd Collins
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau
Directed by Derek Bond

Starring: Glenn Carter, Gareth Chart, Ryan Sampson, Robyn North, Morgan Deare, Jane Webster
With: Kit Benjamin, Mensah Bediako, Donovan Preston, Jonathan Redfern, Vlack Ashton, Dayle Hodge, Roddy Peters
Designed by James Perkins
Lighting: Sally Ferguson
Musical Director: Tim Jackson
Sound Designer: Robert Donnelly-Jackson
Choreography and Musical Staging: Richard Jones
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes including an interval
Box Office:  0207 407 0234
Booking to 31st March 2012
Reviewed by Sebastian King based on 29th February performance at The Vault, Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, Tooley Street, SE1 2TF (Tube: London Bridge)

Musical Numbers
Act One
    Ballad of Floyd Collins – Company
  • The Call - Floyd
  • It Moves - Floyd
  • Time to Go - Floyd
  • Lucky – Nellie and Miss Jane
  • Where a Man Belongs – Family and locals
  • Daybreak – Homer and Floyd
  • Ballad of Floyd Collins (reprise) - Jewell
  • I Landed on Him – Skeets Miller
  • And She'd Have Blue Eyes - Floyd
  • Heart An' Hand - Miss Jane and Lee
  • Riddle Song – Homer and Floyd
Act Two
  • Is That Remarkable? – Reporters and company
  • Carnival – Floyd and company
  • Through the Mountain - Nellie
  • Git Comfortable - Homer
  • Ballad of Floyd Collins (reprise) - Jewell
  • The Dream - Floyd, Nellie, Homer and company
  • How Glory Goes - Floyd
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