Julian Eaves reviews Jonathan Larson’s musical Tick, Tick…BOOM! now playing at the Bridge House Theatre SE20.
Tick, Tick… BOOM!
Bridge House Theatre
7th October 2019
When this fascinating, tiny new Fringe venue opened up a few years ago, I made a bee-line for it and was delighted by the ability of resident artistic director Guy Retallack and producer Rob Harris to create high-quality charm on its postcard-sized stage. They selected shows that fit the space and cast them with the best available talent. It has since become a jewel in the cultural life of Penge and a lure to enterprising outsiders: a mere 20 minutes by train from Victoria, it is an attractive destination for the whole hinterland of south-east London and beyond; I travelled in from Tunbridge Wells, reaching the venue in 50 minutes and – with a railcard – paying £8 to get there and back. It proved worth every minute and penny of my time and money.
This work, one of only two completed shows by the tragically short-lived Jonathan Larson is a typical ‘early work’: three young friends (two boys and a girl) enjoy each other’s company in and around New York City, and one of them just happens to write musicals and – yes – puts on a show in the 1990s equivalent of a ‘barn’. And the show turns out to be…. well, I don’t want to give everything away, but this is musical-comedy land, people. Enough said. While the show does have some kind of rudimentary narrative through-line, where it works best is in its evocation of a close-knit trio, dominated by Alex Lodge’s charismatic Jon (the stand-in for Larson himself) with affectionate back-up from his pals Susan (Georgie Ashford) and Michael (James Hume), who also put in some skilful doubling for the representation of more peripheral characters (Jon’s agent, Jon’s dad…). It runs to something over an hour, without a break, and inhabits the Goldilocks-zone of being neither too short nor too long, and feels as much like a revue as a book-driven drama: there are lots of laughs, and also some unsuspected more serious moments.
The score, though, is its chief glory, and with keyboard and guitar support from an off-stage Jamie Ross, it sounds much, much bigger than it actually is. Numbers like ‘Green, Green Dress’, ‘Johnny Can’t Decide’, ‘Real Life’, ‘Sugar’ and the haunting ballad, ‘Come To Your Senses’, once heard, are never to be forgotten. There is even room here for the gentle, but technically brilliant Sondheim parody, ‘Sunday (Brunch)’, as well as the heartfelt yearning of ‘Why’, which Lodge delivers accompanying himself on an on-stage keyboard. And more. The intense intimacy of the venue makes for a wonderfully deep immersion in each number, and the extraordinary detail and commitment of the performances mean that you feel every moment as a real, lived event.
It is handsomely lit by Richard Williamson, and unobtrusively designed by the sparing Natalie Johnson. Phil Lee manages sound, but the voices are almost always unamplified. Paul Harris provides some movement, though it would have been nice to have had more. And the direction from Retallack is always focussed on bringing out the human reality of the characters in the story; he combines this with a sure-footed and highly intelligent use of the space to enhance the dramatic impact of the show’s events. It’s a peach!