Wasted at Southwark Playhouse online
If you are going to invent the past, then you might as well reinvent the musical while you are at it. 2018’s Wasted, with music by Christopher Ash, book and lyrics by Carl Miller, reimagines the lives of the Brontë sisters as a lively rock gig in a local pub.
Dreary, disease-ridden Haworth is the setting – but you wouldn’t know it from the bare stage. Yorkshire-moored Charlotte, Anne, Emily (and struggling, addicted artistic wannabe brother Branwell) grab mics on leads to sing in every genre from punk to emo via gospel. They keep their personal effects and props in aluminium suitcases and the stage becomes strewn with sheet music as their literary output ramps up.
Happily, the musical prowess of the cast – and the strength of Miller’s lyrics, in particular – bear the demands made of them. The parts where no one is singing are few and far between and more plot could have helped.
Miller is also able – indeed required, since so little is accurately known about the provincial foursome – to create individual characters for each sibling. Natasha Barnes holds the show together as the maternal, ordinary, yet driven genius Charlotte, a writer who doubles down on her book’s first failure to find a publisher – even a vanity publisher! – and goes on to write Jane Eyre. Eventually, she disregards her own advice and marries a cleric. Emily “Wuthering Heights” Bronte (Siobhan Athwal) is somewhat unsurprisingly portrayed as loopy and romantic, singing of being “the first goth.” She has strongest stage presence, at least from behind my computer screen. Anne’s character is less defined, as, portrayed by Molly Lynch, she heads towards born-again hellfire religious fervour. Her high point comes in singing disillusion with a local preacher who infected his wife with VD. Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s addict Branwell is the character most easy to identify with as he tragicomically seeks fame and fortune in painting, writing and other endeavours he is unsuited for. He is almost loveable. He is also a constant reminder of the patriarchy and its mediocrity, or why the three sisters had to publish under male noms de plume.
The Wasted of the title refers to the lives of the sisters and, presumably, Branwell – wasted in Haworth, ministering to the rural poor, desperately seeking junior churchmen – anyone! – to marry. They were all dead before 40.
Wasted is a bracing concoction, more Hedwig than High Society. Out of time it may be, but having the quartet played by a young, ordinary cast somehow helps give a grimy reality to the Brontë myth that inspired it.
Photo: Helen Maybanks
Wasted is available to stream on Southwark Playhouse’s website now. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.