"Sua cui que voluptas" reads the plaque on the chair in front me in the newly refurbished Oxford Playhouse, with its technicolour seating and carpets the colour of a Russian blue cat. Every man has his own pleasures.
And so it might be said when deciding what to make of Oxford graduate James Phillips' 'Cabaret Drama' City Stories, a selection of interwoven plays about love, set in London. Matthew Flynn, Daphne Alexander, Sophie Angelson, Tom Gordon, Gilliam Saker and Youssef Kerkour performed four of these stories tonight, combining monologues, duologues and dialogues with live singing and piano from composer and vocalist Rosabella Gregory.
The first two plays were superb. 'Occupy' is about a chance encounter between a man whose job it is to collect, sort and file letters written to God (c/o St Paul's Cathedral), and the troubled author of one of these letters. Reflecting the solid-ethereal style that was to emerge during the rest of the evening, this piece consisted of dreamlike, fantasy storytelling that was heavy with metaphor, punctuated with wryly observed detail, and brought down to earth by very real geographical signposts. 'Lullaby' was about a plague of terminal insomnia that descends on the city and, via sharp prose and Vonda Shepherd-esque melodies, also a call to wake up and see the world, to live, love, and connect with others.
Had the evening ended there, I would have been gushing about it. Maybe it was the post-Lullaby soporific vibe, but I found it hard to engage with the next two plays 'Pearl' and 'The Great Game'. The stories and characters are mostly from an artsy, hipsterish world, the prose ("I got him drunk in the Groucho") caught somewhere between New York, Shoreditch, and the Bodleian. They seem to reflect that slightly modern first-worldish desire to find meaning and 'authenticity' in life, but tended towards a little too much syrup and navel-gazing for me. I would have liked an exploration of other types of love, not just romantic love. But if you can get over – or even like - this, then you will be as thrilled with the second half as I was with the first.
When at its best, Phillips' London is like a scrapbook in which the stories of its human inhabitants are laid down, at first patchy and disparate, then, over time, layered and connected, creating the essence of place in a sweet, imaginative and occasionally brilliant way. Bring tissues.