Tokyo Rose at the Southwark Playhouse

Photo credit: Steven Gregson

Burnt Lemon Theatre’s Tokyo Rose shows that you don’t need a big budget to stage a compelling musical. Written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin (with additional book by William Patrick Harrison, Hannah Benson and Jonathan Man), and composed by William Patrick Harrison, Tokyo Rose tells the true story of Iva Toguri, an American of Japanese decent who was accused of treason following WWII.

This is an expanded version of a musical that ran at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, and while this longer version feels baggy in places, the talented cast of 6 (all women) give such energetic performances I was engaged throughout. The challenge with such an epic real life piece is that drama is not evenly spread throughout a person’s life, even someone as interesting as Iva Toguri, which makes getting the pacing right challenging.

Maya Britto shines as the plucky Iva, who despite repeated adversity somehow maintains the will to keep fighting on. When she sings about being caught in the crossfire between Japan and America, her performance gave me goosebumps. The many other roles are split between the remaining 5 performers, who often have to shift at break-neck speed between characters, using the smallest prop & costume changes. Despite the quick character shifts and limited cues, I did not struggle to keep track of who was playing who at any given time (sometimes it may have taken a line or two to be sure, but nothing that left me feeling confused) which is no mean feat.

Kanako Nakano provides the perfect brittle counterpoint as Iva’s aunt, who finds herself living with a niece she doesn’t know and who has no understanding of her Japanese heritage. There is a genuine sense of tension between them that really lands the culture shock they both experience. Just because you are family, doesn’t mean you automatically understand each other. Speaking of family Yuki Sutton is sympathetic as Iva’s mother, and really comes into her own as Collins, Iva’s lawyer. Lucy Park is masterly at transitioning between being Iva’s Father and her colleague at radio Tokyo, George. Amy Parker delivers a wonderful solo as the journalist who “outs” Tokyo Rose, before setting hackles rising as the judge for Iva’s case. Finally Cara Baldwin (yes our writer also performs) seamlessly shifts from being odious as DeWolfe and a loveable ally as POW Cousens.

Tokyo Rose is an ambitious story to take on armed with only a cast of 6, but Luke W Robson’s set design cleverly orients the piece, sign-posting new locations at pace. This is a scrappy musical that isn’t afraid to punch above its weight. I wish they’d had the budget for live musicians as a pre-recorded track does put a lot of pressure on the performers, leading to some pitchy moments, but that didn’t stop me being thoroughly engrossed by the show, and there some truly gorgeous vocal performances within it.

Director Hannah Benson puts her cast through their paces, and they really gave it their all when I saw it. While there is scope to further tighten the show, with a focus on clarity and pacing, as it stands this is an entertaining, ambitious and educational night of musical theatre.

Tokyo Rose runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 16th October. With further touring dates as follows:

18th – 20th October – Curve Theatre, Leicester

21st-23rd October – The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford

25th – 27th October – Corn Exchange, Newbury

28th – 30th October – Birmingham Hippodrome

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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