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Tick, tick, BOOM!

The Old Joint Stock

****

“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem. It is not a musical cue. It is not a joke. It is the sound of one man's mounting anxiety. I . . . am that man.”

OPENING to a metronomic ticking this is a timely production of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, marking next week’s 20th anniversary of his untimely death.

It started life as a one man show in 1990, performed by Larson; a monologue with music about a would-be songwriter and composer who is questioning whether he is ever going to be a success in musical theatre or wondering whether he should sell out his creative soul and get a proper job.

It was ironic that Larson, still largely unheralded, was to die, aged 35, the morning of the premiere of the off-Broadway production of Rent, his other creation, which was to run for 12 years after transferring to Broadway and grossed more than $280 million.

After Larson’s death in 1996 tick, tick, BOOM! was revised and reworked into a three hander by playwright David Auburn which brings together, in this fine production, West Bromwich born Joshua Dowen as Jon, Jessica Singer, who hails originally from Solihull, as his girlfriend Susan – as well as every other female part – and Rhys Owen as gay flatmate and high-flying marketing executive Michael – and every other male part . . . and a female one when pushed.

The three work well together in a minimal set, a sort of theatre in a corridor style with two rows of seats lined up against the side walls with the stage between and, at times, within them. It casts an interesting concept although inevitably there are times when necks are having to be craned in an attempt to see the action, not always successful if the actors are in the seats on your side or down the far end.

But the trade-off is that you are watching a musical with the actors, at times, literally within touching distance as they move around the stage  – this is like theatre in your own front room, with the inevitable eye contact with actors making it somehow personal, and the trio do not disappoint, building a relationship with their audience so that you start to care about them.

There is Dowen’s Jon, a dreamer who wants to write songs and whose hopes are pinned on the workshop performance of his musical SUPERBIA – Larson liked upper case - five years’ work resting on one performance.

Rhys Owen, top, Jessica Singer and Joshua Dowen. Picture: Paul Dowen

He is broke, struggling along waiting on tables with his own, less than complimentary view of the clientele of his SoHo diner with the song Sunday. We are never quite sure if it is envy or admiration for Michael who is moving out to a new downtown apartment, a walk in closet, and has just acquired a new BMW.

To add to his insecurities, Jon is almost thirty and refuses to play happy birthday at his party as it is somehow an admission he is growing old.

Owen’s Michael is a pragmatist, an actor who gave up acting because he was not good enough and now plays the corporate game and wants Jon to do the same, constantly creating openings for him at his marketing firm.

Then there is Susan, Jon’s dancer girlfriend whose income is augmented by teaching “wealthy and untalented children”. Singer’s Susan wants a family, a normal life and that is never going to happen with the hand-to-mouth, impoverished lifestyle of Jon who wears the mantle of the struggling artist with a sort of pride. She wants to move to New England where life would be less hectic, less expensive and where “I’d still be a dancer but I’d be a dancer with a dishwasher”.

There is humour with Owen’s Michael having some of the best lines as both Jon’s father and, taking over the role from Singer, as Jon’s female agent

Rather like Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years we see the relationships develop and adjust as everyone follows their own dreams and goals with the performance of SUPERBIA the catalyst for change, but change to what?

Jon considers joining Michael in the alien world of the suits and, for the first time Michael implores his friend to stick with his music. It is a reversal of roles with perhaps Michael regretting his own choice.

Incidentally, in the snatch of SUPERBIA, Singer, as Karessa, one of the actors in the show, produces a fine solo with the bittersweet, Come to your senses.

All three have fine voices in their respective solos while the duets and ensemble pieces are most impressive which is a tribute both to the cast and to musical director Jack Hopkins while director Adam Lacey has kept a good grip on both music and narrative keeping up good pace for the 90 minute show.

The result is a performance where you develop an emotional involvement, you care about the characters and what happens to them, and want to know what happens next. This is intimate theatre at its best.

The Old Joint Stock has moved up a few notches over the past year or so to become an influential pub theatre, a permanent Birmingham fringe, the city’s own off-Broadway theatre and this show can only enhance its reputation. To 30-01-16

Roger Clarke

22-01-16

Jonathan Larson had been suffering chest pains, dizziness and breathing difficulties in the days leading up to his death but a medical centre and a Manhattan hospital ran tests and misdiagnosed it as either being flu or stress related. In the early hours of January 25, 1996 he suffered a fatal aortic dissection which, medical investigators concluded, he would have survived had it been properly diagnosed. The off-Broadway production of Rent opened that night.

 

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