Tucked away in a converted underground car park a few minutes from London Bridge is The Bunker, London’s newest (and quite possibly coolest) off-West End theatre. Its inaugural season continues with Muted, a new British musical that’s been several years in the making.
Written by Sarah Henley, with music and lyrics by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin, Muted is the story of Michael (David Leopold), a promising young musician rendered mute by the death of his mother (Helen Hobson) in a hit and run accident. Now cared for by his reluctant uncle (Mark Hawkins), he hasn’t seen any of his old friends for years – until his ex-girlfriend Lauren (Tori Allen-Martin), now in a relationship with his best friend Jake (Jos Slovick), comes to visit… and it becomes clear Michael isn’t the only one struggling to say what’s on his mind.
The show was initially called After the Turn, but Muted feels like a more appropriate title – not only because of the subject matter but because it accurately sums up the musical itself. There are no big show-stopping song and dance numbers here; Muted is a quiet, reflective piece about the different ways we cope with loss, and the music is similarly gentle in tone, allowing the characters – most notably teenage Michael (Edd Campbell Bird), who speaks for his older self – to express what they can’t say in any other way. It’s music that makes an impression without needing to be catchy or toe-tapping, and left me wanting to listen to it all over again.
The story too is a bit of a slow-burner, with Act 1 focusing very much on establishing the back story, relationships and motivations of the characters, before the pace picks up in Act 2 and events begin to spiral out of control. The finale is undeniably beautiful, although it feels rather abrupt – everything falls suddenly into place in a conclusion that’s a bit too neat, especially after such a lengthy build-up.
In a uniformly strong cast, David Leopold is perfect as the damaged Michael. Unable to make a sound, he speaks volumes with his face and body language, expressing his vulnerability and frustration with a twitchy intensity and haunted gaze. His relationship with teenage Michael, played by Edd Campbell Bird, is particularly moving; radiating energy and assurance, the younger man acts simultaneously as a friend and a constant reminder of everything he’s lost. Equally flawless is Tori Allen-Martin as Lauren, who unlike Michael, talks too much – but beneath the chatter lies a young woman who’s just as fragile as her ex-boyfriend, and it’s not at all clear by the end of the story who needs whose help more.
Jamie Jackson’s production is quite abstract, leaving much open to interpretation. The set, designed by Sarah Beaton, is simple and stark: a square walkway surrounding a shallow pool of water, at the centre of which sits the island representing Michael’s bedroom. (There’s also a swing hanging from the ceiling, which gets a lot of use throughout the show, although its significance is never totally clear.) And many of the songs are accompanied by gestures from the actors that fall somewhere between interpretive dance and a kind of sign language, stripping the story back to its core emotions and producing some of the most visually striking moments in the whole show.
Muted is a powerful new musical that appeals to every emotion; it’s at times desperately sad, at others laugh out loud funny, and concludes on a note of cautious optimism. Though the show’s not yet perfect, it certainly has the potential to be – and even now, there’s no doubt it’s been well worth waiting for.
Muted is at The Bunker until 7th January.