“two hours after the first internalised ‘humbug’ we’re all singing ‘Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas’ with the cast and feeling impressively jolly”
The first question is ‘Why?’ Why take on the challenge of Dickens’ mawkish seasonal classic, with its rich recipe of bustling streets, vivid characters and hovels packed with rosy-cheeked urchins with four actors above a pub? Nevertheless, two hours after the first internalised ‘humbug’ we’re all singing ‘Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas’ with the cast and feeling impressively jolly.
The group’s secret appears to be twofold. One, to approach their task as strolling players, chivvying up spirits by strumming instruments and carolling in a vaguely Victorian manner. Two, and not quite so successfully, relying on our imaginations. So stretched are the consummate performance skills available that the ghost of Christmas future is played by a human-shaped structure with a sheet over it. Doubling up is part of the fun, of course. Bridge House Theatre regular, Jamie Ross, copes with both extremes of the optimism spectrum in bright-eyed Bob Cratchit on one hand and decomposing Jacob Marley on the other; he is also Musical Director. Ben Woods navigates a similar stretch between Scrooge’s nephew and Young Scrooge but does so effortlessly. Saorla Wright mops up the female roles and the ghost of Christmas Past with cheeriness and agility, literally jumping between parts at times, whether Mrs Cratchit, Belle or atmospheric cello.
Best of all, the central role of Scrooge is played by Rachel Izen, by some reports the first female to play the role, and it is the originality and force of her performance that keeps the venture from ever looking like coming off the rails. Playing him as a more contemporary, bullish capitalist rather than the shrivelled old fun-sponge usually depicted lifts this familiar yarn and steers it away from the gothic spookiness that’s often wasted on modern audiences anyway.
In service of Scrooge’s emotional journey, Director Guy Retallack’s own adaptation pushes the action along and allows for joyous interludes like a game of charades with the audience, a threat of participation which brings the only true scary moment for many. His adaptation also demands great discipline and support from the creative and technical departments, outstanding among which is the Sound Design from Phil Lee, who is kept especially busy evoking a roomful of invisible children and howling winds whenever a door is opened. The puppetry (Consultant, Jo Elizabeth May) is a good solution to space and cast issues, but an inanimate Tiny Tim is as hard to love as it’s possible for a sickly child to be. This is awkward given his job of delivering the tear-jerking last line, but by then everyone has caught Bob Cratchit’s spirit of forgiveness and is ready to join the singalong. Why? Because ‘Christmas’.
“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.