Phyllis Pearsall created the London A-Z in 1936, walking 23,000 streets by herself. Or so the story goes… it’s the basis for this new musical, by playwright Diane Samuels and singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.
As well as revealing the grit required for such an undertaking, and forming an impressionistic hymn to London’s streets (created vividly by a hard-working chorus), The A-Z… examines Pearsall’s dysfunctional family and daddy issues.
Comedian Isy Suttie (Peep Show), is a goofy Pearsall, mixing dopey despondency with jolly gumption. It's a twanging voice, but Suttie has real charm - as does the whole show. Tickets and postcards hang above a long avenue of stage; expressive percussion evokes footsteps, and the passage of time.
Cartography is brought to life with sung litanies of squares, streets and house numbers, and the spirit of the city evoked in lyrics: “The drunks in the doorway, the smog and the stars/the poets of Soho with three-string guitars/singing this is our time, my lovely London town.”
Herbert’s music is woodwind-heavy, piping and pretty, while an accordion adds cabaret zing. The show teeters on twee, and while it’s freshly guileless rather than calculatedly so, The A-Z… can also be unfocused and daydreamy.
Overlong at two and a half hours, there’s too much on her parents’ fraught relationship. Both parties seem rotten: she (a twinkling, 100-carat Frances Ruffelle) goes off the rails on booze, while he (a heated Michael Matus) is a brutally demanding, jealous man with zero empathy.
There are constant emotional ups and downs: less a narrative arc than a seesaw. A pleasant journey then, but one which meanders down too many sidestreets.