It certainly wouldn’t be the first Friday night for The Recs to find ourselves in a wine bar. However. this may be the first time it has been a wine bar in a musical. Tasting Notes, styled as a new musical with legs by Richard Baker and Charlie Ryall, sees one day played out in the lives of six people who work or frequent LJ’s wine bar. Less Pirandello, more six characters in search of a Pinot.
LJ (Nancy Zamit) owns the bar hand has a passion for wine but is wondering if there’s more to life than serving people who just want to get drunk. Maggie (Charlie Ryall again) has left an emotionally abusive marriage and is working reluctantly as a waitress while auditioning to rekindle a performing career. Gay waiter George (Sam Kipling) works alongside her as does cat-loving Oliver (Niall Ransome), except he hasn’t turned up for his shift. Eastern European chef Eszter (Wendy Morgan) is worried that her son is travelling down a dangerous path and completing their number is Joe (Stephen Hoo) an alcoholic, with bereavement demons, who is a regular at the bar.
While these six characters may sound a bit grim on paper, the challenges they each face are engaging like the best soap opera. Alcoholism, racism, homophobia and death are the darker undertones to the show’s comedic top notes. What Tasting Notes does cleverly is take this single, seemingly regular, day in their six lives and tell it through each of their eyes. We see the day unfold through the eyes of LJ first reaching its tragic conclusion. Then when the day is repeated through Maggie’s eyes, we see tiny changes in perspective. What LJ may have assumed in various moments may be entirely different when seen through Maggie’s eyes.
This works particularly well when it becomes Eszter’s turn to experience the day. She speaks in broken English throughout everyone else’s stories and struggles to communicate. Later we see how she feels judged and misunderstood. When it’s time to relive the day through her perspective, her previously thick Eastern European dialogue is translated into English so that we hear all of her previous conversations afresh. Her panicked but confusing phone call with her troubled son in which ‘Croydon’ is the only discernable word becomes worryingly real in her narrative stream.
The narrative device really explores the nature of what is on the surface and what lies beneath. When we think someone is happy but they’re not. When someone appears to be fascinated but in their head they are thinking blah blah blah. The musical posits our perception of other people as mere “tasting notes” – a rough approximation but one which cannot be truly appreciated until experienced. And of course, like a good drama, this format of ever changing narrative viewpoints culminates in the revealing of something someone has deliberately kept hidden.
In some ways, it’s unusual for a musical to be so focussed on the narrative. That’s not to ignore the quality of the songs, which regularly channel a bit of Sondheim wordiness. Your Love is the standout song with Sam Kipling’s soaring vocals delivering a searing emotional honesty.
If you’re looking for an evening of wine, song and great company – well the company maybe a bit troubled – but a day spent in LJs Wine Bar is an engaging experience. One to which we raise a glass though perhaps a darker and more depthful one than the advertised label would suggest.
Plonk yourself down at Southwark Playhouse for Tasting Notes, a fine musical for discerning palates. ★★★★ 4 stars