Yes, I know this is terribly late. But then a thing happened and then another thing, and then there was a referendum which you might have heard about. So here it is, a month late, my review of Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical. I also wrote about it here and here, and later this week I’ll be interviewing the composer, Stephen Hyde. So that’s something to look forward to.
From the title onwards, Queueue is a play that messes with your expectations. Staged in the large but cramped cafe at Modern Art Oxford, this promised to be ‘The Greatest Musical Since Hamilton’, detailing the lives of the various digital citizens who flock daily to the artisan coffee shops of the land. Writer Leo Mercer set out with the task of ‘adapting the internet’, and he imbues Queueue with the chaotic, free-associative quality of casual surfing, bolstered by imaginative direction and a versatile score. As is often the case with Mercer’s shows, Queueue is freewheeling, clever, and massively indisciplined, but with a production team as talented as this, there’s only one major place where that indiscipline is a problem.
The plot consists of a series of vignettes set in the titular coffee shop, centred on the various people sitting inside it on their laptops and smartphones. There’s Alice, our nominal heroine, a young professional trawling the net for business opportunities. Then there’s Zoe, a wannabe YouTube star in the making, and Cody, a bank clerk/L33t Haxor who gets bored and starts causing trouble. All of them are watched over by the cafe’s owner, Jazz, who also acts as omniscient narrator. The action unfolds at, between, and around the cafe’s tables and chairs, an interesting theatrical decision which further implicates the audience in the troubles of the digital petty bourgeois.
This kind of staging is tricky to pull off, and requires a very good cast to get it right. Queueue can thus count itself extremely lucky. Jemimah Taylor is brilliant as Alice, conveying emotional depth with a character written as a bit of a cipher, and Ben Christopher is good fun as Jazz, displaying a bit less range but an equal amount of charm. Jess Bollands is similarly good as Zoe, displaying all the charisma and vulnerability of the YouTube star, and hitting the high notes like no-one else in the cast. Finally, there’s Charles Styles as Cody, whose sleazy persona and slick fashion sense perfectly complement his shady hacking and inept socialising, a performance as gloriously hammy as it is occasionally creepy.
All this is aided by a slick score from composer Stephen Hyde. The sound is all synth-heavy contemporary pop, shifting effortlessly from the quietly atmospheric to the intense and emotionally charged. Particular highlights include the rousing intro ‘Young Blood’, the psychedelic ‘Coffee Shop On The Moon’, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber riff ‘Queen of the Cats’, which accompanies a wonderfully bonkers descent into the dark web, an underworld populated with feral LOLcats. Scott Bolohan’s direction helps keep things nice and dynamic, even if the blocking feels a bit awkward as the actors constantly shift to avoid tripping over table-legs. Mercer credits The Lego Movie as a source of inspiration, and Queueue‘s playfully appropriative style does a good job capturing the mad, self-referential nature of life on the web.
Having said that, Queueue does make one major slip-up in its depiction of the internet. There’s a sequence in which Zoe is viciously trolled, demonstrating the harm that internet harassers can cause, but the play’s one self-confessed troll is ultimately rewarded with a relationship with Zoe at the end. Trolling is presented as, at best, impolite, and at worst is actively rewarded, a dangerously cavalier attitude towards the material the show seeks to adapt. But that’s only the start of the problems with the ending. Having climaxed on a massive downer, with pretty much every character in the play alienated from everyone else, the ending features every character simultaneously deciding that the events of the last two hours don’t really matter, and then pairing off in romantic bliss. On its own merits it’s quite a good sequence, featuring a witty song parody of the clickbait listicle by way of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’. But in terms of the play overall it’s a disaster. Setting aside the dubious gender politics, to see such a subversive, imaginative show collapse into the most cliché, heteronormative ending possible is deeply disappointing.
But while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, Queueue is still a landmark bit of student theatre, and represents a risk worth taking. The best analogy is a prog rock album; this is a show of bold, striking ideas and skilled performances, rather than narrative clarity or coherence. As the title implies, Queueue is a bit too strange and a bit too long. But it’s also self-aware, and it uses that excess to its advantage.
Plus it contains the single best use of ‘Charlie bit my finger’ in theatre history.