Tick Tick BOOM!
Park Theatre 90
8th May 2017
Bronagh Lagan, director at Finsbury Park’s wonderful new arts hub of this shapely revival of Jonathan Larson’s ‘dry run’ for his mega-epoch-making-iconic-musical ‘Rent’, is quickly becoming one of the country’s most innovative and thoughtful directors. Indeed, she’s so far ahead of the game that, in a sense, we are playing catch-up with her, while her own imagination races ahead to create new types of response. I first saw her making a splash in the diminutive Tristan Bates Theatre with an eye-catching production of Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse’s ‘The Stationmaster’. While I was still digesting that, she blazed a trail into the Large space of Southwark Playhouse with a forthright and masterful ‘Promises, Promises’, a production of such brilliance that only now is it fully registering with me just how carefully thought out and effective it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but months after it closed, I can still see her set-ups and arrangements of the characters, I can still follow their moves, hear their words, see the expressions on their faces, and – above all – feel what it felt like to sit in the theatre as the audience and experience the event that was that presentation. Not all directors are blessed with this extraordinary ability to ‘resonate’ with their public in this way, to continue the relationship between themselves, and their painstakingly assembled companies and elaborately constructed productions, and to reach beyond their allotted run and into the after-life of what happens when the production has closed. I think maybe Lagan might be one of those remarkable directors.
If so, then all credit is due to Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainments, whose protégé Lagan is, and who with Joe C Brown is now at the helm of this bijou rendering of the cute three-hander spun out of Larson’s own witty soft-rock-monologue, where he tries out a lot of the ideas, tropes and gestures that were to take on fully-fledged life in the much grander, more expansive and fully realised modernisation of ‘La Boheme’. Producing at this address for the first time, the team have enrolled some charming talent in the threesome in the smaller performance space: Chris Jenkins, who made such a hit here a little while back with ‘The Burnt Part Boys’, returns as the stand-in for Larson, Jonathan, struggling to write The Great American Musical in the form of his (probably quite unperformable) ‘Superbia’; and as his amiable side-kicks we have Gillian Saker, arriving with impeccable straight theatre credentials, as Susan, and Jordan Shaw bringing West End pizzazz as Michael. All three get to play a rack full of other smaller roles, sometimes sharing them, lending the piece a fun, improvisational slant.
Their performances are full of love and tenderness and wit and gentle, ironically self-effacing and also passionately self-obsessed humour. They are performances that emerge from inside the characters and grow outwards towards us. I feel sure they will mature over the course of the run. Technically, there may be one or two glitches to get over, especially with questions of audibility (and I’m confidant Jamie Woods is going to solve those problems in his sound design): the band is amplified but – as far as press night was concerned – the performers did not sound as if they were.
The script itself is an apparently straight-forward ‘backstage story’ of ‘And then I wrote…’, but given a massively post-modernised make-over. The songs comprise more revue-style variety than book-format convention. The little live band (handsomely managed by MD Larson expert, Gareth Bretherton), seem actually to be playing ‘inside the walls’ of his tiny New York apartment. And the furniture of Nik Corrall’s collage-like set can be pushed and pulled around to create a huge range of different spaces and environments, as well as moods and frames for the individual ‘numbers’ that are the story’s scenes. Ben M Rogers lights it all with spare attention to zany and weird detail with everything from flashes of Broadway glitz to tiny flickering Puccini-esque candle flames. The industrial ambience is continued through the intermittent humming of the A-C, or the belching of plumes of artificial smoke. This heavily urbanised world suggests both the centrality and the ephemeral quality of the human traffic on the streets and in the living rooms and diners and offices and cars of Larsonland. Philip Michael Thomas provides the seamless transitions into movement that is interesting and idiomatic.
Lagan re-creates the musical as a play. She approaches the script not as a textbook for creating easy spectacle, quick laughs and predictable sentiment, but as a challenge to engage her – and thereby the audience’s – mind. She picks up a not only well-known, but well-nigh legendary work, and seems to say to us, ‘You think you know this… but do you?’ And I’ve just twigged that she was doing the same in ‘Promises, Promises’, and ‘The Stationmaster’, and I’m glad I’ve made that realisation. And the effect here is that the show packs a fair old punch: one is continually being pushed away from a sense of comfort, and compelled to listen – oh, so, carefully and intently – to every utterance of these precious and wonderful people who are, like mirages, shimmering before our eyes, in all their human fragility and temporality. It offers an unusual kind of ‘engagement’, where the audience is metaphorically teetering on the brink of really discovering something lasting and significant about them, while forever being aware of the image of that revelation slipping further and further away, growing stronger and more defined as it simultaneously becomes more distant and harder to connect with. For a show which is, in fact, a rehearsal for the much larger and more finished ‘Rent’, this approach is absolutely right. It may be crazily constructed, with scenes successively written in styles wildly at variance with one another, where it is sometimes impossible to see any coherence in terms of tone, intention, purpose and manner. Nonetheless, I’m delighted to say that I’m already booked to go back and have another session with it, and its fascinating aesthetic conundrums, later in the run. It is the kind of production that rewards such attention.
Photos: Claire Billyard
Until 27 May 2017