Photo credit: Claire Bilyard
Been there, seen it, and worn the proverbial T-shirt. Or so I thought, having seen a production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! starring Paul Keating, Julie Atherton and Leon Lopez in May 2009 at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street (currently home to The Play That Goes Wrong), when it played for a week alongside a production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. But I suppose I was still at a point in life where I was still discovering different theatrical styles. Eight years later, I’m glad I managed to squeeze in a visit to this revival at the Park Theatre, 90 minutes of musical theatre in the 1990s in a 90-seater studio space.
It works better in this more intimate environment than my first encounter with this show, though the Duchess is amongst the smallest of the West End playhouses in any event. The band, led by Gareth Bretherton, play at a soft volume, allowing the performers’ vocals to be heard clearly and without subjecting the audience to the hair dryer treatment. The choreography (Philip Michael Thomas) is stunning and occasionally surprising, at one point leaving Jordan Shaw’s Michael within inches of crashing into a member of the audience, at least from my vantage point.
An enthusiastic ‘Director’s Note’ in the show’s programme encourages the audience to look out for references to the composer Stephen Sondheim. I can only echo that sentiment, and found myself enjoying the show much more than I would have done if I hadn’t borne that in mind. Not for nothing, for those who know their Sondheim, is one of the musical numbers called ‘Sunday’. There are references and homages to other musicals dotted around elsewhere. Now this is a semi-autobiographical show by the late Larson, who (as any aficionado of his more famous musical, Rent, will tell you) died just before the first preview of the Off-Broadway run of Rent, on 25 January 1996.
Chris Jenkins returns to the Park Theatre, having previously played Jake in its larger theatre space in The Boys in the Band. Here, he plays Jon (told you this was semi-autobiographical), a composer who lives a hand-to-mouth existence even as his best friend Michael’s corporate career continues to climb. Jon’s girlfriend Susan (Gillian Saker), makes a living as a ballet teacher. The ‘I wish’ number, ‘No More’, is more Michael’s than Jon’s – Jon is more torn between his girlfriend’s wishes to settle and raise a family and his own desires to be a professional composer, with all the volatility that comes with such a career choice. Either way, Jenkins possesses an intensity and warmth that makes his Jon hugely likeable. When so many musicals have their actors ignore their audiences, it’s pleasing to have direct eye contact. I never personally felt like it was a ‘breach of the fourth wall’, though others at the performance I attended definitely thought so.
As for Jenkins’ co-stars, Jordan Shaw is just as infectious (an insensitive term for his Michael, perhaps, given what happens to him), and it would take a very ardent anti-capitalist indeed not to feel pleased for Michael as he continues to work hard and reap the benefits accordingly. Shaw plays a number of minor roles, as does Gillian Saker – both their portrayals of Jon’s passionate but acerbic agent, Rosa Stevens, are a hoot. Saker’s Susan doesn’t have that much in the way of character development, but she does get what Broadway calls the ’11 o’clock number’, a stirring ballad called ‘Come To Your Senses’, and throughout the evening, the sheer range of Saker’s vocal talent shines.
It’s the final number, ‘Louder Than Words’ that suitably brings together the various strands of the narrative, and simultaneously asks some pertinent questions that remain remarkably relevant today, and I suspect will remain so for some years to come. “Why do we refuse to hang a light / When the streets are dangerous? / Why does it take an accident / Before the truth gets through to us?” A beautiful and energetic production.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.