The Young Vic has a history of staging productions with the help of the local community. The Human Comedy continues that tradition by employing the singing talents of around 100 people who form a Greek chorus for this funny, sad, touching musical.
Based on a novel by William Saroyan, The Human Comedy is set during World War Two in a community far from the war, but nevertheless affected by it. Ithaca, California – named after the place Ulysses longed to return to in Homer’s Odyssey – is “a little town not famous for anything,” the opening number tells us.
In this small town the McCauley family have already suffered due to the war: father and husband Matthew is dead. Now elder son Marcus is away fighting, his fate still to be decided. He has left behind his mother, sister Bess and sweetheart Mary, as well as his two brothers, little Ulysses and second son Homer, who takes a job as a telegram delivery boy to make ends meet. As they struggle with one loss and the possibility of another, their lives must continue nonetheless, while the threat of receiving devastating news hangs over them.
A sung-through musical, The Human Comedy features a score by Galt MacDermot – who wrote the more famous show Hair – which captures the music of the period. A mixture of hillbilly, blues, jazz and hymns, it is played live on stage by a band of talented musicians, some of whom double up as members of the cast.
This is truly an ensemble piece, with the vast chorus perched, for the most part, on wooden crates each side of Jon Bausor’s dusty set. But each of the principal cast has their moment to shine: in one nicely-staged scene, Jos Slovick’s Homer must audition for his job by singing a happy birthday telegram; in another, girls Bess (Kate Marlais) and Mary (Sarah Harlington) relive their innocent schoolgirl crushes with a sparkling jive; meanwhile, over in Europe, their men raise morale by singing blues to each other. Fine performances are also given by Jo Servi as Telegraph Office manager Spangler and Brenda Edwards as his feisty woman-friend.
The Human Comedy is not a flashy, fast-moving musical. Watching it is a gentle experience; the harmonious voice of the chorus is soothing and the humour is smile-inducing sweet, not laugh-out-loud raucous. But perhaps this sweetness lulls you into a false sense of security. When Homer and his soldier brother Marcus share a touching duet across the Atlantic, the musical reveals the heart-breaking core that lies beneath its charming surface.
MacDermot wrote hippie musical Hair before The Human Comedy. That also deals with war – Vietnam – and its effect on those who are drafted. What leaves a real lump in the throat at the end of this later piece is the knowledge that the young Ulysses, who has seen his family ravaged by the Second World War, would be the right age, some 20 years later, to fight in South East Asia.