A New Brain
Corpus Playroom, Cambridge (ADC Theatre)
12th October 2022
Proving that it’s possible to make a musical about anything, ‘A New Brain’ first hit stages in the late 1990s, and told the autobiographical tale of its creator William Finn’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment of a serious brain illness. Finn spent much of his recovery period creating songs that detailed his experience, and then worked with writer James Lapine to craft a 90-minute story of one man’s fear of dying and having so much left to say. Although the show has enjoyed success off-Broadway and a celebrated Encores concert series, it has yet to see a professional UK production. Until that day comes, amateur theatre groups are able to get their hands on it, one example of which plays Cambridge’s Corpus Playroom this week.
Frustrated songwriter Gordon Schwinn (played here by Hugo Gregg) is struggling to write a song for a children’s show, and also feeling a larger problem in that he has so much he wants to communicate but can’t quite find the words. He is suddenly taken ill, and soon diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation in his brain. Treatment is discussed, but it’s a surgery that will either cure Gordon or kill him. Gordon proceeds with the operation, but as this is a musical, he navigates the process via hallucinations that also help to explore his relationships with his boyfriend Roger (Joseph Lucas) and mother Mimi (Freya Cowan), plus guest appearances from Mr Bungee (Christian Longstaff), the cartoonish host of the show Gordon’s supposed to be writing for.
‘A New Brain’ is certainly a niche musical, and one that doesn’t feel immediately accessible, but there is a lot to like in this amateur student production, which is directed by Jas Ratchford. It’s a brave choice of show to put on, being largely unknown on these shores and with very few standout songs in the “showstopper” sense, and it’s a very intimate production. Performed in one hospital room setting for 95% of the show, the show could easily have a divisive “marmite” reaction, but audiences who like their shows more focused on character rather than showy visuals will be engaged. The piece is sung-through, meaning no spoken book scenes, which can often run the risk of stopping the audiences getting to know the characters, but Finn’s lyrics convey the journey well. The songs are strongly character-led and narratively driven, unlikely to feature in a riff-filled X Factor audition but work well within the context of the show, and are performed simply but effectively on keys by Felix Elliot.
Bearing in mind these are amateur performers, the cast do a solid job and look like they’re having a great time. Hugo Gregg makes a likeable lead as Gordon, and shares some tender chemistry with Joseph Lucas’ Roger, who also shows off a good voice with his “I’d Rather Be Sailing” solo. Standouts are Christian Longstaff as Mr Bungee and Freya Cowan as Mimi respectively, who show themselves to be talented character actors and sell themselves well. Georgia Greig also wins in the vocal stakes as the homeless Lisa, delivering her numbers brilliantly.
‘A New Brain’ will be too “small” for some, favouring simplicity over spectacle, and Finn’s score is one that improves with repeated listening rather than wowing from the off, but this Cambridge group have done a good job in delivering the show as its intended. It’s a show that makes us think about everything that we want to say, and with some good performances on show, this group deserves to be heard.
‘A New Brain’ runs at the Corpus Playroom until Saturday 15th October.
Performance runtime 90 minutes without interval.