Review- John & Jen- Western District


By: Justine Denning


This endearing musical has its Asian premiere in Hong Kong's very own Fringe Club. John & Jen is based upon the lives of two siblings and their relationship, which spans through the complexity of a changing America between the 1950's and 1990's. 


This is by no means a simple task, as both actors need to perform the weight of hefty musical numbers, not to mention that Nathan Koval must play both the part of John (in Act One), the younger brother of Jen (played by Sarah Martin) and Jen's son John, (during Act Two). This means that Koval must present two very different adolescences on stage whilst retaining similar character traits. This is not an easy feat by any means.


The book doesn't necessarily help develop these two separate identities fully, as much of the narrative is weighed down by the journey of Jen and her conflicting judgments. 


Act One is dedicated significantly to youth and childhood.  It isn't easy to immediately fall in love with the musical numbers; they are repetitive in parts and perhaps a product of their time (John & Jen was written in 1995) but these slight musical factors can be overlooked thanks to the powerful performance of Sarah Martin, a strong and emotional vocalist. 


The plot of John & Jen rests heavily on the information provided for us in Act One.  Unfortunately, this act struggles to carry this burden; it lacks believability at times and strong development in the two characters. There's Jen, a protective, elder sister conflicted with the desire for freedom in approaching womanhood and an urge to save her brother from the world she resented; and then there's John, a brother dedicated to the ideals of what it is to be a man based on his own dysfunctional father. These characters are a representation of America during a significant period of changing mentality, the old and new.  There are humorous interactions and glimpses of childhood truths to reminisce to and it also ends with a finale which, although not wholly unanticipated, is more emotionally hammering than that of the second act. 


Act Two brings with it stronger performances, with Sarah Martin appearing more comfortable in the role of a single mother, racked with guilt and burdened with her past. The act runs more smoothly and the songs now hold a significant air of sentimentality. Here, we have an act using great moments of audience interaction with humor that now feels familiar. A particularly great scene is Jen being an overbearing mother during a baseball match. Now, we've all seen that parent before and both actors do well to keep the momentum of this sequence running. 


The musical accompaniment of this small set are three musicians worth noting: Sophia Yan on piano, Sandra Lozano on cello and Tim Chan on percussion. They were simply wonderful as support and masterfully rendered each number together with well-deployed background music. The fruit of their labors paid off and their dedication commanded much appreciation from the audience. 


The set itself is oddly simplistic in tone and lacks the vibrancy of such a wholesome exploration of family dynamics but the lighting offers a warm edge and is simply but effectively executed. 


John & Jen is certainly worth a view. Its grounded and touching moments will pull ever so slightly on your sentimental heartstrings. 


John & Jen is playing through April 23rd. For more information, click here.

Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 4.5


  • Matt coombes
    22 April 2016

    Please disregard this review and go and see this show!
    Seeing two professionally trained performers backed by a professional live band was electric, exciting, funny and moving.

    Hong Kong theatre needs support and not people judging it in comparison to the west end shows with monster budgets.

    The review also failed to review one of the main characters...

    Also would like the credentials of reviewers posted up so I know that they at least have professional training and haven't just "seen a lot of theatre".
  • Tom
    22 April 2016

    Seems to me the reviewer praises all the performers and recommends the show as a 'heartstring puller' but has reservations about the way the piece itself is written and structured.

    As to reviewer credentials, these are posted in the critics panel which you'll find if you click on the 'reviews' tab. (Details for this reviewer are at
  • Karen c
    22 April 2016

    I think the review is fair. It's a nice, simple show but the story is a bit basic. The girl does have an amazing voice.
  • Matt
    22 April 2016

    The review doesn't actually review the show it comments on the actual play.

    Reviews should regard the performance of the show surely not comment on the writing - otherwise write an email to the writer?

    And no - the credentials are not listed. Where you went to university is not a credential or validaton, experience or cv.
  • Brad Jacobs
    23 April 2016

    Script is most certainly part of a review. If you can take a boring text and make it amazing, the actors/team should be praised for it.

    Scripts hold shows back. Carrie, the musical? Awful show. Why? Shit script.
  • Tammie lee
    23 April 2016

    There is no one more supportive of artists in hk than meaghan and the hkeld team. They always come and review our shows no matter what. Scmp, timeout, ming pao don't come anymore. They're cutting the arts listings even...

    Not every is perfect but we get honest feedback, which is priceless to an artist.
  • henry
    23 April 2016

    Let's stop commented on the reviewers credentials and go support western district. The show is very good.

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