Superhero is a compelling and compassionate new musical that’s well written and tugs at all the right heart strings. It’s content and form are unusual and enjoyable, giving the audience exclusive insight into the mind of a man so unique he feels like us all.
Colin Bradley is in the fight of his life: he needs to stop ex-wife Chrissy from taking ten-year-old Emily to live in LA. He stands in front of a court judge to make his plea. Superhero is what follows – both in real time, in reflection and recollection.
Colin is an Everyman but he’s also pretty unique. Typically, he “loves his daughter”, “made some mistakes” and is “willing to do anything to put them right”. But at the same time he’s a stay-at-home dad, comic book fanatic and impromptu Billy Bigelow. He’s half geezer, half geek and fully charismatic.
Colin left the family home after an infidelity, with an informal arrangement to see Emily on Wednesdays and weekends. After Chrissy extends their holiday in LA, causing him to miss Emily’s birthday, Colin goes to the courts. Once the primary care giver, he can now only – legally and officially – have “contact” every other weekend.
His stories take us back to when Emily was born, his initial struggles, and to his and Chrissy’s “amicable” separation. Colin goes to great, often self-sabotaging lengths to show Emily his love: a souped-up new bike, a trip on the London eye. He is a broken man without his daughter, and tries to force the fun, memories and relationship of two weeks into every outing.
But Colin becomes so desperate he forces something else: his lumpy body into a too small superhero costume. And with one daredevil stunt, he grabs the attention of the world at large and changes his own life forever.
The musical’s book, by Michael Conley, is fun and fresh with a distinctive voice. The central framing device is clever, allowing direct address to feel normal rather than just necessary in a solo show. Some plot elements are annoyingly neat or clichéd (“When I said break a leg – I didn’t think he’d actually do it!”) and Theatreland nods to Carousel and Drury Lane feel like hangovers from a first draft.
However, what Conley succeeds impeccably at is creating a charming, kooky and conceivable character who we come to love not in spite of but because of his imperfections.
Lyrics, by Richy Hughes, follow in the same vein: strong, funny and characterful. Sometimes, however, Hughes forgets the voice (and intellectual style/capacity) of his protagonist, replacing it with his own: some jokes are too quick, some phrasing too academic. In a style that has become endemic in British musical theatre, the lyrics are conversational, chit-chatty, featuring lots of run-ons. Whilst this creates character quickly, it can deny an audience full emotional force, and in this case also delays the narrative a little.
Joseph Finlay’s music is pretty and accomplished, if a little plinky-plonky in the first half. Stylistically it refuses the tub-thumping tunes of many contemporary musicals, instead preferring internal, reflective and referential melodies. Joe Bunker leads an expertly talented band of just three to create the musical world of the piece.
Adam Lenson’s direction displays the unique style and execution that has placed him firmly as the go-to director for new British musicals. His choices keep the musical moving, visually interesting and emotionally raw. Space, levels and props are exploited to their best.
Michael Rouse does a stellar job as Colin. His voice is clear and engaging, of a commendable quality without feeling shiny or affected. He has utter commitment to both the emotionality and physicality of the role, displayed in numbers such as ‘All American Dad’. Rouse is comic, tragic and all round fantastic in deft, seemingly effortless swoops.
Georgia De Grey’s set is a thing of County Court beauty, proving a highly versatile, unassuming and astute backdrop to the many stories and settings of Colin’s tale. Sam Waddington’s lighting design is crisp and clear, giving definition between states of past and present and taking us into new worlds at the push of a button. Andy Hinton’s sound design is simple – the use of court microphones is particularly effective – but struggles in the black box space when attempting to recreate the protest outside.
Superhero is a compelling and compassionate new musical that’s well written and tugs at all the right heart strings. It’s content and form are unusual and enjoyable, giving the audience exclusive insight into the mind of a man so unique he feels like us all. Despite a few (easily rectifiable) hiccups and a lack of nuanced female perspective, Superhero sings sweetly, grabbing both the heart and the head. This is what a Dad can be – at his best and his worst. A solid addition to the one-man canon, delivered exquisitely by Michael Rouse.