Sitting in The Garden Theatre, the newly-named performance space at The Eagle in Vauxhall, on a hot summer’s night, sipping an icy vodka and tonic and watching six actors strut their stuff, accompanied by a pianist, is as close to heaven as this reviewer has been for six long months. It was, quite literally, an oasis, in the desperate COVID-created cultural landscape in which we currently find ourselves. And let’s shout it from the rooftops: WE NEED THEATRE! WE NEED LIVE PERFORMANCE! There is a frisson to seeing real people – people like us – telling us a story. We feel it in a different way. So, congratulations to everyone involved in bringing this first taster back to us. It was managed beautifully; a track and trace system and social distancing were in place, but handled with ladlefuls of welcome and humanity by the Eagle staff, and the whole event fizzed with a sense of delight and solidarity.
The show itself is a musical, based on the true story of two young men in Victorian London – Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton – who were put on trial for dressing as women and conspiring to commit sodomy. Frederick and Ernest – the eponymous Fanny and Stella – were well-known figures, having public dalliances with a bevy of society gentlemen, as well as attending drag balls, which were a feature of gay London life of the period. Glenn Chandler’s book and lyrics emphasise the freedom the young men feel within this world and their right to live as they choose – which is a reminder of the battle against misogyny that femme-presenting gay men and trans women still battle with today. The reminder is there, but the piece is far from a polemic. Steven Dexter (director) and Nick Winston (musical staging) have done a terrific job of bringing some real MT pzazz to this tiny space; the choreography is simple but tight throughout, and the performers make it sing, with Jed Berry (Stella) in particular, leading from the front and dancing with real skill, style and showmanship.
There are a few stand-out numbers, as you would expect, and the opener – Sodomy on the Strand – starts the show with a bang. Alex Lodge (Louis Charles Hurt) does some lovely work in one of the more tender romantic songs, but (’twas ever thus) the show really belongs to the barn stormers, and Kane Verrall (Fanny) gives them exactly the level of gutsy ribald chutzpah they need. He gives a terrific comedy performance throughout, and helps get things back on track on the few occasions when the script loses a bit of energy and pace. There are a couple of jarring moments tonally (the horribly invasive medical scene just didn’t sit right as light comedy) but, as a whole, the show is a light and frothy bit of fun, providing a very welcome 90 minutes of laughter and joy in this strange hot summer of 2020.
“The vocal mix of these three was goosebump-inducingly beautiful with some truly astonishing harmonies”
tick, tick…BOOM! has aged very well since 1990. To listen to any other writer wonder whether he’s going to change the landscape of musical theatre with his work through the medium of an autobiographical musical would seem self-aggrandising at best. However, the writer behind this show was not just any writer, but Jonathan Larson, a man who would go on to literally change the landscape of musical theatre with his work (namely Rent). It’s surprising just how well tick, tick…BOOM! stacks up compared to the Pulitzer Prize-winning behemoth that succeeded it, although it is in no small part thanks to the Bridge House Theatre’s intimate and pared-back production.
The show centres on Jon (Alex Lodge), on the verge of turning thirty and subsequently having an existential crisis. In the midst of this he also has to contend with his roommate Michael (James Hume) moving to a flashier apartment due to his new high-paying corporate job, and his girlfriend Susan (Georgie Ashford) wanting to settle down away from the city. This leaves Jon under pressure to decide whether to continue pursuing his career as a musical theatre writer or to give up and lead a ‘normal’ life with more psychological and financial stability. It’s a dilemma that will no doubt feel very familiar to any creative trying to make it professionally, and is presented very truthfully here through its rock-centric score, with songs such as ’30/90′ and ‘Real Life’ laying bare the anxieties and hopes that this kind of lifestyle will impose.
The story is not quite as slickly told as with Rent, with the feeling that Larson hadn’t quite found his voice yet – the man clearly idolised Stephen Sondheim and it bleeds through a little too much into some moments, such as in ‘Sunday’, a pastiche of Sunday in the Park with George placed in the café Jon works at, which seems to be there just for pastiche’s sake and not to expand on the story, characters, or themes. However, most other numbers feel like they are quintessentially and organically woven into the fabric of the narrative, especially those towards the end of the show such as ‘Why’ and ‘Louder Than Words’.
The intensely cosy setting of the Bridge House Theatre made for some very intimate storytelling, and the performances revelled in it. Lodge portrayed Jon with a spectacular humour and charm that didn’t forsake his urgency and insecurity, while Ashford and Hume were both also excellent, and delightfully varied in the myriad of minor characters they also took on. The vocal mix of these three was goosebump-inducingly beautiful with some truly astonishing harmonies embellished into the score, with energetic accompaniment from musical director Jamie Ross. The absence of percussion was felt at times in some of the bigger numbers, although this perhaps won’t be an issue if you’ve never heard any of the songs before. Guy Retallack’s direction deftly utilises every inch of the space, bringing a stellar sense of dynamism throughout, and Richard Williamson’s lighting design was especially notable in how effectively it established scenes, in terms of both setting and atmosphere.
There’s a sense of sentiment to tick, tick…BOOM! given Larson’s untimely death at the age of 35. As we see him fret about whether his work will ever reach a meaningful platform, it’s a little upsetting to know he’d never get to see how utterly epochal his writing would become. It’s no doubt a smart move that this production steers away from the schmaltz, instead staying laser-focused on delivering a confident and slick love letter to creative crises.