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Theatre Review Boogie with a suitcase

Despite herself, MARY CONWAY is charmed by the escapism on offer in a love letter to New York

Two Strangers (Carry a Cake across New York)
Kiln Theatre, London

AN ingenious set from designer Soutra Gilmour fills the stage for this sweet, touching musical running until January at the Kiln. 

The set is composed of different-sized suitcases that loom white and ghostly from the darkness as we enter. Together, as a shape, they recall the New York skyline around which one lone suitcase relentlessly revolves, airport-style. This is the scene before a single word is uttered. 

And the cast of two, when they enter, flutter and weave around this central structure like wind-blown leaves around an ancient monolith. The characters are two of life’s flotsam: buffeted by events, never in control. And their ages straddle 30. 

It’s a simple story well known to all: the cheering romcom where two lost people meet, muddle along, encounter setbacks and finally light up each other’s darkling lives. Who with a heart can’t applaud?

It’s a manipulative piece too — formulaic almost –— taking as its source glossy American PR: the dream of the Big Apple, the belief that no-one is lost for long in New York, the sales pitch of its mainstream movies and popular songs: When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle or even Let It Snow. The sentiments are manufactured. 

But that aside, there is something genuinely true and heartfelt about this show. And at a time when so much is causing us misery at international, national and personal levels, a snatch of easy uplift is hugely welcome and simply accessible.

Unlike in US sitcoms, our two characters are impoverished people, floating into our vision from the nameless masses, from both sides of the Atlantic, who have nothing and can expect nothing. Dougal is a white English boy; Robin is a black American girl.

What marks Dougal out is his ability still to embrace hope and to find elation in the moment. For Robin, life is devoid of joy, and negativity has become entrenched. But somewhere along the way, the very realness of these two people — their lack of pretension and instinct for the value to be found in the smallest things — connects and heartens them. And life is transformed by love.

It’s an unsurprising plot lifted by a catalogue of melodic songs with which writers Jim Barne and Kit Buchan set the show on fire. Listening to Sam Tutty (Dougal) and Dujonna Gift (Robin) as they sing for our delight is the jewel of the evening. When Tutty sings his song “Dad” very early in the show, you know this is a masterly offering. And when Gift launches from her barista life into What’ll It Be?, you settle into pure enjoyment. 

Lux Pyramid raises the level with his skilled orchestration of keyboards, guitar and drums and Tim Jackson stuns with his tight direction and choreography: 

Jack Knowles’ lighting repeatedly transforms the central suitcase block into familiar filmic views and feel-good overtones of New York. The actors bring us today’s youth, constantly amusing and surprising. And we all leave in mellow mood.

Good seasonal choice, the Kiln. Pure entertainment with heart. 

Runs until January 20 2024. Box office: (020) 7328-1000, kilntheatre.com.

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