I was invited to review the debut show by Kyra Jessica Willis, The Feeling, which promised to be a bold, modern, dark comedy musical.

The songs take the form of recognisable pop hits from the likes of REM, Roxette, Demi Lovato, Radiohead, Savage Garden, Counting Crows, Avril Lavigne, Chris Isaak and Fun. They generally work well in the fabric of the show, which provides a look at a group of friends sharing their highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and paranoia.

Poster image for The Feeling
Poster image for The Feeling

Willis herself plays Jessie, first seeming to be just a bitchy woman who plays with people, but developing into someone who needs hugs and happiness. Her close friend (and possibly former lover) is coffee-shop owner and peacemaker Mel, played with a touch of wisdom by Halie Darling, and she is in turn taking shaky steps into romance with geeky Jamie (a sweet George C Francis, who also directs the show).

Jessie and Edie (Chloe Hazel, psychologically shaky and with a heart of stone) have an odd relationship which seems to have more to it than their shared ex-partner, Kasey (PJ Tomlinson). Constantly needling each other and seeking attention, their animosity feels very immature and disturbing.

Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry

Then there’s Lexie (a delicate Pippa Lea, whose fractured vocals give realism to her situation), who falls for nice guy Archie (Sean Erwood, only in his teens but providing a strong and sensible glue within the group): he’s faced and got through a crisis which may come back to haunt him.

Finally, there’s Holt (Chris Barton), in love with Jessie and on the periphery of the group. This set of people navigating the perils of growing up meet each day in the coffee bar, talking about the small things in life, and sometimes the big things too.

The cast of The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
The cast of The Feeling (minus Chloe Hazel), via Monsteers Artistry

A change in lighting for most of the songs put me in mind of Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, where the musical interludes provide hidden thoughts which remain unspoken. Here, too, we get duets between Jessie/Edie, Jessie/Lexie and solos for Lexie, Edie, Jamie, Jessie which gives us that insight that isn’t in Willis’s dialogue.

The Feeling starts with a film projection of some of the backstory while Kasey sings the opening song, “Mr Jones”. After that we’re straight into what seems to be Friends territory but with extra tension, which escalates with Jessie and Edie’s refusal to speak and Lexie mourning her recent break-up.

As a play, I found some of the dialogue needed to be helped along by the songs, and some aspects came from nowhere (why are Lexie and Hoot siblings when they have no interaction). In the main, though, there is enough here to make you care and the use of “We Are Home” as the final song was particularly effective.

Detail from promotional image for The Feeling
Detail from promotional image for The Feeling

The characters have definitite potential and I felt the warm friendship between Jessie and Mel, the caring core of a Kasey who knew he’d made mistakes, the nervous anxiety of Jamie who doesn’t know how to behave around women, and the quiet desperation of a lonely Lexie.

The songs are well-chosen and beautifully accompanied by MD Connagh Tonkinson, who strips them back to their strong lyrical core. They are generally sung with a sense of realism and emotion, which I enjoyed, even if a handful of the choices have a personal resonance to me that briefly jolted me away from the drama.

Ultimately, The Feeling is an accomplished show from a young company which has a lot of potential: it isn’t perfect, but it shows a lot of heart and a willingness to engage with difficult and complex subjects without resorting to hysterics.

The Feeling has two more performances on 7 September, at 3pm and 8pm. It runs at around 2 hr 20 minutes including an interval.

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