Superhero, Southwark Playhouse, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Not every superhero wears a cape, and not everyone who wears a cape is a superhero. In the Southwark Playhouse’s new one-man musical Superhero, directed by Adam Lenson, Michael Rouse plays a man who struggles to be either.

Rouse narrates the story of Colin predominantly in flashback, as he pleas with the judge in a family court to prevent his ex-wife from taking their 10-year-old daughter, Emily, to a new life in the United States.

Through a series of songs by Richy Hughes and Joseph Finlay, Rouse’s Colin documents the progress of his relationship with his wife and daughter, choosing to stay and home and look after Emily when his spouse gets a new, high paid job.

Hughes’ lyrics have a fine eye for observation, and while Michael Conley’s book doesn’t have quite the same sense of characterisation, songs and monologues combine to provide a highly effective and moving character portrayal.

As Colin’s relationship deteriorates, we are left in no doubt that the mistakes that precipitated the breakdown were his – and yet Rouse ensures our sympathies remain with the complex character.

In the first half of this piece, which runs without interval for just under an hour and a half, Hughes and Finlay’s songs shine a light on the struggles of a single parent who only gets to see his child according to an agreed schedule.

But as the prospect of a move to the US approaches – triggering a neat pastiche of vaudeville patter in ‘All American Dad’ – Colin’s desperation finds an outlet when he stumbles upon a fathers’ direct action group, who draw attention to their campaigns by scaling landmarks while wearing superhero fancy dress.

The real-life concerns of fathers who feel the family courts are weighted heavily against them are reflected here, as is the impression that some of the demonstration antics are counter-productive stunts whose planning is fuelled by alcohol. But throughout, Rouse portrays a man who is driven by his love for his daughter.

From the music hall stylings of ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ to the comedic retelling of Colin’s Big Ben-climbing in ‘Don’t Look Down’, which won the Stiles and Drewe Prize for Best New Song in 2015 – along with other numbers that eschew the wry comedy for more straightforward explorations of love and loss – Hughes, Finlay and Conley have crafted a musical that tells a fresh, original story in an exhilarating and refreshing manner.