NEW YORK—If you could sit down with your 21-year-old self and tell yourself the future, what would you say? This is the premise of the very enjoyable cabaret-style Simon Green: So, This Then Is Life. Presented by the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre located in Guildford, Surrey, England, it is now at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway series.
Devised and compiled by David Shrubsole and Simon Green (performed by Simon Green with musical arrangement and accompaniment by David Shrubsole), the work offers a smorgasbord of songs, poetry, and spoken word, using material from such sources as Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Hitchens, Maya Angelou, Stephen Sondheim, Noel Coward, Tom Lehrer, Duncan Sheik, and many others.
Interspersed throughout the performance are numerous letters Green reads—letters of people writing to their younger selves, all of which begin “Dear Me.” They offer advice, warnings, and the rueful, poignant, and humorous wisdom that comes with knowing what awaits ahead.
The advice includes do or don’t kiss that certain person, don’t worry so much about your weight, try to get a handle on your self-esteem issues, and stop telling everybody how you can name all the U.S. presidents forward and backward, as well as every state in alphabetical order—something that was cute when you were a kid but now makes you look weird.
Other letters make a point of noting how certain constants will not always be there, such as “spend more time with Dad, he dies much sooner than you think,” or pointing out that while it’s important to listen to one’s parents, it’s also important to follow your own instincts.
Also present in much of the material is a feeling of looking back on those earlier times with a wistfulness mixed with regret over missed chances and not really having the ability to appreciate being young when one actually is young.
This premise is echoed in such offerings as “When I Was One-and-Twenty” by A.E. Housman, and “They Are Not Brave,” by Daphne du Maurier. The latter piece is wonderfully set to music by Shrubsole, who also functions as the show’s musical director.
At times, however, the work takes this central idea in an entirely different direction, such as the comment from Christopher Hitchens, who when asked if he would like to live his life over, says “only if I was not aware I was doing so” and that one ought to “set some limits on wish-thinking.”
Another highlight is a piece Green performs by Tennessee Williams about the conversation that inevitably happens after two people have made love for the first time and are trying to think of something to say once the afterglow has faded. It’s a story with a hilarious conclusion. The songs chosen for inclusion in the piece all work beautifully. The musical numbers range from cute little ditties by Noel Coward to more poignant ones by Stephen Sondheim and Duncan Sheik.
Two songs that particularly stand out are “I Found a Stairway in My Cupboard,” written by Shrubsole, about a middle-aged man presented with a chance to begin a new adventure, if only he has the courage to do so, and the aforementioned “They Are Not Brave.”
Also quite enjoyable is “The Warthog” by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, a humorous tune which illustrates the dangers of trying to live up to everyone else’s idea of what is socially acceptable and not allowing one’s own unique qualities to shine through.
Coming off as a very amiable sort here, Green makes a perfect host. His reads the numerous “Dear Me” letters tinged with nostalgia, matter-of-factness, seriousness, and deadpan humor when necessary.
His singing voice is also in top form, putting across perfectly the different emotions and nuances required in the various songs. He is particularly effective with the Coward tune “Alice Is At It Again,” Sondheim’s “Too Many Mornings,” and Shrubsole’s “I Found a Stairway in My Cupboard.”
Green and Shrubsole, who have teamed up several times in the past, show they still have good chemistry. The entire performance moves swiftly and easily while never becoming overly maudlin or downbeat, either of which could have easily occurred had the two chosen to take things in those directions.
Important, then, is the element of hope running throughout the show. Despite all the trials one goes through, things usually turn out all right in the end, though perhaps not in the way you expected when you were young.
Simon Green: So, This Then Is Life taps into a universal yearning to go back and somehow influence one’s own past for the better. It certainly makes for a surprisingly intimate experience, complete with some heavy soul-searching if the number of audience members writing their own letters to their younger selves after the performance, this writer included, is any indication.
Simon Green: So, This Then Is Life
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit 59e59.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: June 1
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.