Katrina Bennett

Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse

A grungy rock musical about the Brontës and their challenging lives, battling against addiction, disease and poverty, promises to be an exhilarating take on this famous family. Bleak, poverty-stricken Yorkshire becomes a stark, wooden platform that stages a series of powerful rock ballads. With music by Christopher Ash and book and lyrics by Carl Miller, Wasted’s undeniably talented cast have the potential to create something really exciting, but sadly, the production’s overly long and messy format lets it down.

Natasha J. Barnes leads as Charlotte Brontë with the natural assurance of an elder sibling. An in-depth exploration of a complex character, Charlotte guides her brother and sisters, while grappling with her own struggles and the responsibility of managing the family. She is conflicted between aspiration and social expectation, desperate to write but hampered by traditional, nineteenth-century gender roles.

In a scene based on an infamous, condescending letter from Robert Southey in 1837, the poet laureate encourages Charlotte to give up writing for motherhood and marriage. This does not deter her. (Ten years later she will publish her second novel, Jane Eyre) Nevertheless, Charlotte’s introducing herself as Mrs Arthur Nicholls feels uncomfortably incongruous with the woman history knows her to be. Indeed, Wasted does well to bring these struggles to life.

Charlotte’s younger siblings, however, are poorly fleshed out and feel two-dimensional in comparison. Molly Lynch brings a spectacular vocal range to the role of Anne but has little to work with in this naïve and limp character (Anne’s personality extends no further than a desire to please her sisters and get married).  Emily (Siobhan Athwal)’s eccentricities make her more interesting as she visibly clings to the fringes of sanity. Athwal compellingly becomes a growling, spitting presence with volatile outbursts that her sisters attempt to placate.

The play’s anachronisms are gently funny. Athwal brings a touch of humour as Emily, who sings about being a goth before her time. The third-eldest’s apparent mental illness, though, is left inexplicable and undiscussed. Occasionally, this makes for cheap comedy; for instance, Emily’s singing desperately about her love for her dog in the form of a loudspeaker emitting barking sounds, which she caresses like a pet.

Elsewhere, Wasted is charged with a fierce sense of social injustice. The talented and motivated Brontë sisters face continual obstacles, while their brother, Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan), despite his gender privilege, selfishly squanders his every opportunity. Like the other cast members, Morgan shows stunning vocal ability. He thrives as the funny, cocksure fool, who brashly sings of his failed attempts to paint, write, and learn the flute.  

But again, the play is hindered by poor character development. Branwell’s potential for a gritty, heart-wrenching decline into addiction and disease is bypassed for a swift death that left me emotionless. Ultimately, we only come to a shallow understanding of his failings and inner conflict.

Wasted is sparse on dialogue, narrated mostly through song. This increasingly becomes a weakness, as most of the songs are unmemorable, and many do little to further plot or historical insight. Lengthy verses about the city of London, or about the sibling’s childhood aspiration to write a magazine, begin to drag. Unfortunately, Adam Lenson’s unimaginative direction exacerbates the issue; the cast’s static, semi-circular huddles are of little to no visual interest during lengthier numbers.

This is a shame as the onstage band, led by musical director Joe Bunker, show great talent and stamina. The score varies from heavy rock to power ballads, to softer acoustic moments. There are a couple of standout numbers, particularly ‘White Violets’ which movingly parallels Charlotte and Branwell’s experiences of heartbreak, and ‘(Extra)Ordinary Woman’ which explores Charlotte’s move from the disappointment of her first book rejection to writing Jane Eyre.

Wasted’s musical talent is spectacular, with tremendous ability from all involved as each cast member cuts right to the top of their range, harmonising seamlessly as an ensemble, capturing the energy and verve of a live gig. The minimal set leaves nothing to hide behind, and combined with the sheer number of songs, the production is certainly ambitious. But it’s one that would have been far more enjoyable with substantial cutting.

For all its faults, Wasted tells an inspiring story of these three women in a unique, creative way, reminding us that behind these illustrious writers are flawed but lovable human beings, whose fight against restrictive social standards carved out a place for generations of women writers to come.

Review by Katrina Bennett.

Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse is available to stream for free here.

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