How much is a five pound note worth? Well, its true value depends less on the numerical denomination and more on what the person holding it actually needs. Fiver, the new British musical from Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees currently at Southwark Playhouse, follows a five pound note as it constantly changes hands and makes its way through the world, giving us a fleeting glimpse in to the life of each recipient.
We start with a professional busker, played by writer Alex James Ellison, who begins the chain and then stays with us as a kind of narrator, filling in some of the gaps as we move from one owner to the next. Each song is wrapped around an event or situation happening to the current holder of the note.
Given the plot device, Fiver presents as more of a song cycle than what we would traditionally think of as a musical. It is impossible for any of the stories we see to find closure, because the note has already changed hands, and we’re into a new narrative. That said, the stories do link very cleverly and there are some very inventive ways that the note continues its journey.
If there’s one thing that stands out about Fiver, and there is much to admire, then it’s the music. From our guitar playing narrator, a keyboard player (also musical director Tom Lees) and a small band hidden behind the set, an absolutely astonishing score emerges. A heady mix of folk, spoken word, rap and soul, not to mention a couple of the most beautiful ballads you will ever hear. I left the theatre and got on the tube wishing I could hear that soundtrack again. I got home and wanted to listen to it. I will wake up tomorrow wishing I could play it.
A cast of just four, plus the narrator, take on all of the roles; switching between a homeless man, an office worker, school teacher, widowed father and many more. The challenges of the multi role set-up was clearly not lost on the writers, who have included a very funny scene where there are far more characters than available actors.
Humour does play a big part in this musical, it’s not just that some of the scenes are funny, Aoife Clesham delights the audience with a very funny ‘Press Hash to Record’, but also that the creative team have accepted this production’s limitations and exploited them to bring the audience in on the joke.
Hiba Elchikhe has less of the comedy moments, but her ‘Whisper It To Me’ is glorious. A duet between Luke Bayer and Dan Buckley, ‘You’ll Be A Man, My Son’, is as inspiring as it is heart-breaking and later Buckley’s ‘I’ll Write a Song For You’ is nothing short of glorious.
It is as our narrator that Alex James Ellison captivates the room. His simple guitar playing and sublime vocals would be a joy to watch on their own, but he almost immediately builds a connection to the audience, making it an intimate and uplifting experience. His love of the music he has created is clearly evident, and anyone lucky enough to see him perform is privileged indeed.
There remains the fact that the plot device means we don’t really get to know or love any of the characters, and the second act becomes a little confusing as some of the narratives intertwine. And yet, the experience of watching this musical is one of pure uplifting wonderment, the cast that has been assembled are beyond exceptional, and have I mentioned that soundtrack?
Fiver works in the small space of the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, and it could have a future life on a bigger stage, indeed so strong is the concept and music that with a few tweaks this could be a British 21st Century Rent. A tighter book may compromise the overall premise and that’s a decision that would need to be carefully mulled over, but one thing is certain, wherever this particular Fiver ends up next, it’ sure to have increased in value significantly.