Review: Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

Thursday, 4th May 2023 at York Theatre Royal


The world of modern dating: connection online, awkward first meetings and the inevitable gamble taken on whether or not anything will come of it. Gus Gowland’s warm-hearted new musical, Mayflies, follows a pairing who are meeting up for the first time after two years of chatting online, and it covers a lot of ground when it comes to this tentative rooting for connection.

After those two years of superficial “getting to know you” online, finally meeting throws up an entertaining blend of momentary annoyances worthy of a long-term, established couple, alongside the cringe-worthy hilarity that comes with those awkward first moments of alone time (or in their case, alone and in person time). Gowland, as both writer and composer, has created a piece which speaks to a whole host of vulnerabilities but also the ridiculous, comic elements of two lives colliding for the first time with hope intact. And that sense of hope and anticipation soon offers a fork in the road: for Nuno Queimado’s May, the hope is fragile and set on ideals which are easily shaken. For Emma Thornett’s Fly, the hope is more robust, with a healthy dose of realism. So when fragile idealism meets hardy realism, there’s going to be an awful lot to unpack…

Mayflies does a great job in delivering realism with style and benefits greatly from the credible warmth and fluctuating sense of connection between Queimado and Thornett. As a pairing, they’re charming and perplexing, funny and frustrating, and generally very engaging to watch. But the narrative itself is very fragmented, cross-cutting between past online chats and varying shades of awkwardness, flirting and affection in the present. It’s therefore a little difficult to follow at times in terms of chronology, but Director Tania Azevedo’s influence alleviates the impact of the constant time shifts with broad, full use of the set and stylised movement slowing the pace of transitions beautifully just before the lights lift on the next snapshot.

TK Hay’s set design is a highlight, centring the all-important hotel room double with a romantic display of feather-shaded lights hanging across the length of the stage. It also offers an array of soft-edged levels in a shade of blue which lighting designer David Howe translates into coolness or gentleness according to the shifts in the relationship. And speaking of tone shifts, boy do this pair like to trip each other up. There’s definitely an element of “spot the red flags” and some frustrating moments to suffer through as we watch this awkward attempted tango over egg-shells – I’m not clear as to whether Gowland wants to invite criticism of one or the other, but I’d certainly be having some words with one of them in particular about their compulsive self-sabotage!

Gowland’s music (orchestrator, arranger and musical director: Joseph Church) also runs the gamut: emotional solos and beautifully harmonious duets rub shoulders with comic, angst-ridden solos and yearning, tragi-comic duets. This isn’t catchy music, which some still see as a marker of success or quality, but it doesn’t need to be: the songs very much belong to the telling of this story. That said, there are a few particularly impressive numbers which would be worthy of a life outside of a Mayflies run. “Running on Empty” has the same emotional intensity and sense of narrative progression as “Waving Through a Window” or “She Used to Be Mine” – for me, Queimado’s rendition is certainly the musical highlight of Mayflies. In turn, “Worth Waiting For” provides a generous opportunity for showcasing beautiful harmonies – just before another stray thoughtless comment causes the next hiccup…

Shows about online dating and modern dating in general are many – and they’re often primarily comic, pointing fun at the roulette of hook-ups and how to ditch a flatlining date creatively. With Mayflies, Gowland digs a little more deeply into the emotional gambling involved in modern dating, offering layers of comedy and sentiment punctuated by some beautiful new music. Interestingly, this show has a rotating cast who perform the piece as either one of two straight couples or a gay couple; I can imagine the appeal of seeing how the script and messaging might shift when viewed through the lens of alternative characters, too.

Mayflies is at York Theatre Royal until May 13th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.

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