The Other Palace was host for this first outing of Love Is Only Love. I trust it won’t be the only theatre in which this theatrical gem sparkles. It’s as perfect a way to spend an hour or so in the theatre as I can imagine. Look out for it – and if you get a chance to see it, make sure you don’t miss it. It’s charm will last your whole life long.

Only LoveWhen I think of perfection, I think of glorious sunsets, the sparkle of mischief in the eye of a child, a wry smile from a grandparent, the first swim of the summer, a perfectly made cocktail, holding the hand of someone loved…the list goes on. Musicals often try, and sometimes succeed, in catching that ephemeral sense of perfection, sometimes with the music itself, sometimes with dance, sometimes with lyrics sung exquisitely. Sometimes with all three in perfect unison.

Because they work best when full of heart – a fact validated by musicals from Oklahoma! to Hamilton – musicals spend a lot of time dealing with love; they inspire great, wonderful love. Depending on what musical (or other work of art actually) first sets your imagination on fire or captures your soul, your path through life can be enhanced by the intersection between it and your own experiences. And, happily, for millions of young men and women across the planet, there are many musicals that tell the tale of their young love, blooming love, lost love and long-lasting love. The notion of men and women falling in love and musicals seem perfect companions.

But, for the most part, musicals don’t tell people, other than straight white people, anything about how they might fall in love. Of course, there are notable exceptions to that – La Cage Aux Folles, The Color Purple, Once Upon This Island, Ragtime, Fun Home, even Aladdin, to name just a few – but, in general, musicals are fairly conservative. At least in some ways.

In other ways, naturally, musicals can be fabulously liberal – a cheery, happy, healthy antidote to the woes of everyday life. Frothy nonsense. Mel Brooks put his finger on the button when he suggested, through Roger de Bris in The Producers, that it was wise to ‘keep it gay”: that is the perceived way to ensure success in musical theatre – camp antics, over the top comedy, joyful exuberance, lots of beautiful women scantily clad with muscular dancing partners. Partly this is because experience says the formula works; partly it is wishful thinking; and partly it is because some producers believe that they have two key audiences to capture should they wish success: wives/widows/women with spending money and gay men. Partly, of course, it is errant nonsense.

Only LoveIt’s not true that every gay man loves a musical, despite clichés that persist, but it is true that those gay men who do love musicals are, generally speaking, passionate about their favourite ones. Men who, for instance, travel from New York to London to catch a production of The Rink because it is their favourite musical and rarely performed. Men who can mouth the lyrics to every line of Les Miserables or Gypsy (to the annoyance of their neighbours in the stalls) or who wear playbill pyjamas to queue up to buy tickets to Hello Dolly! starring Bette Midler on Broadway.

One such fanatic – about Hello Dolly! as it happens, but the Streisand film not the Broadway show – is Sam Harrison, a gifted singer, dancer, actor, and writer. His delightful show, Love Is Only Love, recently premiered at The Other Palace in a production masterfully directed by Jason Morell. To call it a play with music, or even a cabaret, is to diminish the achievement.

While the term “Jukebox Musical” is often thought of as derisory, it would be a term not inapt for Love Is Only Love. With songs from composers such as Richard Rodgers, Jerry Herman and George Gershwin, it’s like a Musicals Jukebox Musical. But, the show is really a musical in its own right.

There might not be a single composer responsible for the score, but Harrison has picked songs from the very fabric of his thirty or so years of life and fashioned a coherent, beautiful whole. Some of the tunes will be well known to audiences, others not quite so – but Harrison lends his silky tenor, with all of its sweeping grace and crystal clarity, to each tune to produce unexpected, but often glorious, results. By placing the songs expertly in the story of his own sexual awakening and, more importantly, his passage into composed adulthood with some help from his football loving Dad (the gift of ballet lessons) and his understanding, caring Mother, Harrison creates a perfect fusion of words and music.

The result is intoxicating.

This is truly a tale for everyone. It’s about dreams, hopes, ambition, acceptance and devotion – with some sex and banter for extra measure. There is nothing to offend but much that will enlighten. But for the fact that the absence of the special joy live performance brings would be palpable, Love Is Only Love ought to be filmed and made compulsory viewing for…well, everyone. Like Everybody Is Talking About Jamie, Love Is Only Love is a joyful celebration of difference and tolerance. And, again just like Jamie, it’s warm, revelatory and very funny – often at the same time.

No spoilers here, because the way Love Is Only Love unfolds is a particular pleasure that each new audience member should experience for themselves. It will affect different people differently, as all great musicals do; but it will open the eyes for a few, sometimes an achievement only small scale musicals can hope for. If only one person finds that their life is better for having seen this show, Harrison will have succeeded in ways he may not have thought possible.

Love Is Only Love has only one Act, but, Harrison aside, there are a multitude of characters – Sam’s Mum, mates and lovers – all played with startling incisiveness and distinction (you are never confused who is who) by the gifted David Seadon-Young. I was particularly impressed by his performance as Harrison’s mum; for a manly, rugged actor, Seadon-Young brought a real fragility and femininity to the role and, after unerringly scoring an initial laugh from the twirl of an apron, made her real and utterly believable. He was just as good as Harrison’s “mates” and lovers, especially as William and Marc. Vocally, he excels, and the smooth sounds he produced blessed the ears. He effortlessly matched Harrison’s intensity, brio and joy. No small achievement.

The narrative is sure and told with equal doses of nostalgia and whimsy. It sprawls from the time when Harrison, aged six, first clapped eyes on Streisand’s Dolly Levi (and was bedazzled for life) through the journey to adulthood with its maze of first kisses, uncertain feelings, lust and heartbreak. Harrison lights the way through that maze with generosity of spirit, unblemished honesty and even an ebullient moment of choreography (take a bow, Nicky Griffiths). It’s never indulgent or capricious and, as a result, the overall effect is deeply affecting. And, unlike most new work, Love Is Only Love doesn’t need refining: it’s a fully formed theatrical jewel. Everyone involved, particularly Morell, (who also lit the show and designed the sound) should be proud of this exceptional achievement.

When the audience finally learns that the talented pianist who has overseen and accompanied the musical journey – from My Romance to It Only Takes A Moment – is actually Harrison’s real life long-term partner (the splendidly talented David Keefe), the collision of performance and reality is tender and ecstatic. If there was a dry eye in the house, I couldn’t see it. (Okay, so maybe one spoiler)

The title of the show is both simple and complex, much like Harrison’s central performance. But if you see it as a reflection of the sentiment which underpins It Only Takes A Moment, you get Harrison’s point. Love is Love and that’s all it is – no matter who you are or who you love, love is just love and there is nothing only about love. It’s a beautiful message, well conveyed. A message for everyone, regardless of who they wish to love.

The Other Palace was host for this first outing of Love Is Only Love. I trust it won’t be the only theatre in which this theatrical gem sparkles. It’s as perfect a way to spend an hour or so in the theatre as I can imagine. Look out for it – and if you get a chance to see it, make sure you don’t miss it. It’s charm will last your whole life long.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Love Is Only Love
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.