“Irish Coffee has exciting potential, but this production seems intent on sabotaging itself, instead delivering a thriller that simply doesn’t thrill”
Since 2019 marks 100 years since the birth of beloved Argentinian political figure Eva Perón, it feels as apt a time as any to present work on her legacy. It’s hugely welcomed that a new play aims to shine a different sort of light on Perón than Lloyd Webber’s over-produced megamusical Evita, but unfortunately the execution of Irish Coffee leaves only a bitter taste.
In the wake of Perón’s death and the installation of a military government in place of her husband’s presidency, rumours are flying as to the whereabouts of her body, and journalists Rodolfo (Fergus Foster) and Tomás (Giorgio Galassi) are eager to find answers. In doing so, they become entangled with Colonel Moori-Koenig (Gary Heron) and his (unnamed) wife (Sally Ripley), and thus – in theory – tense political thrills ensue. The play is adapted from the real-life Rodolfo’s short story about his encounter with the Colonel, a meeting which doesn’t take place until about halfway through the script in Irish Coffee, originally written by Eva Halac and translated from Spanish by Daniel Kelly and Luis Gayol (who also takes on directorial duties). It’s no surprise, then, that that meeting makes for the best scene of the play as it had excellent source material to adapt from, although it also unfortunately highlights the lacklustre and meandering nature of the rest of the show.
Most of the scenes are two-handers between either the journalists or the Colonel and his wife, and since the people in those pairs are striving to achieve the same things, there is very little conflict or tension in those interactions, and what is there is forced and jumbled in with heaps of clunky exposition. It was somewhat astounding that Gayol worked as a translator for the text given his lack of reverence for it as a director, as the actors appeared to be following instructions to do as much unnecessary busywork in the overstuffed set as possible. In one instance, the blocking placed two actors at the very front of the intimately-sized stage, completely obscuring what was supposed to be one of the few crucial visual moments happening behind them. It felt as though the company were expecting to be performing on the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage, only to at the last second be moved to the Calder Bookshop and Theatre, which is much cosier (albeit still a delightful venue).
The performances too felt roundly under-rehearsed, as though Gayol had requested ‘shout this line’ or ‘cry here’ and the actors were doing as they were told without having found an emotional justification to do so. Despite this, Galassi and Heron both provide stellar stage presences, and as mentioned, the scenes in which the opposing sides interact begin to provide a crackle of energy -however, that happens far too late in the play and fizzles out far too soon. Irish Coffee has exciting potential, but this production seems intent on sabotaging itself, instead delivering a thriller that simply doesn’t thrill.
“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.