tick... tick... BOOM!

Jonathan Larson
Notes from New York
Duchess Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

The Notes from New York at the Duchess Theatre season neatly packages together two complementary, largely autobiographical, shows: Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years and Jonathan Larson's tick... tick... BOOM!, which receives its West End premiere.

Neither piece lends itself comfortably to the stage, with the former being a song-cycle and the latter being originally written as a monologue with rock band and later adapted as a three-hander after Larson's untimely death.

The tick tick of the title refers to the sound of aspiring composer Jon's mounting anxiety as he considers his unrealised ambitions in the face of his 30th birthday. As he evaluates his life he feels the temptation to abandon his would-be career as his best-friend Michael and girlfriend Susan have done, he giving up acting for a well-paid job in marketing and she all-but-swapping a career as a dancer to teach untalented rich kids.

Jon's hope is for a producer to take an interest in a musical he has written which is shortly to have its first work-shop. A production of this show would vindicate his years of struggle, of working as a waiter and living in a slum. It is not to be. Even confronted with this apparent failure, together with Susan leaving him to progress her teaching and Michael's terminal illness, Jon comes to terms with the fact that he will never find fulfilment if he gives up composing.

Carrying through the monologue style into the adaptation may preserve the spirit of Larson's original work but undoubtedly it contributes to the show being rather toilsome. Poor sound quality dulled what should have been Paul Keating's sharp opening number "30/90", and for all his energetic jumping on and off pianos, what could have sparkled, only glistened.

Larson wrote tick... tick... BOOM! before Rent and similarities are apparent, as are references to other composers, a case in point being Stephen Sondheim in the clever spoof of "Sunday" and also in echoes of Company in the plot and references to West Side Story in the lyrics.

It could be argued that the combination of different styles here - rock, pop and more traditional - is an uneasy one, and undoubtedly there is a reliance on the hackneyed in both book and lyrics: few toes are left uncurled in the number "Louder Than Words" where the lyrics comprise an un-inspired collection of clichés, of the "Cages or wings, which do you prefer? Ask the birds"-variety.

Equally, though, Larson's developing talent is evident, particularly in the duets amongst which "No More" and "Therapy" are shining examples. In another, "Green Green Dress", Paul Spicer (who has his choreographer hat on for this production) comes up with some perky stuff to be danced out on top of the baby grand. "Sugar" likewise provides a burst of energy in more ways than one.

The trio have to work hard to keep things going, even with Hannah Chissick's direction that maintains a clear sense of location and atmosphere. Julie Atherton gives another striking performance with her comic abilities most observable in the smaller roles and her strong vocal abilities exploited in the otherwise unexciting "Come to Your Senses".

The character of Michael is under-written but Leon Lopez is genuine and engaging as Jon's best friend, who has come to terms with success in the business world and what he had to leave behind to get there - "Don't you miss acting?" Jon asks him; "I don't miss starving" he replies.

Paul Keating's vocal performance suffers the most from the woolly amplification and he has no easy task making Jon - a character full of New York angst and self-absorption - likeable. Hats off, though, because his characterisation remains emotionally unfeigned, in spite of some inherently self-indulgent material.

All credit too to producers Jamie Hendry Productions and Neil Eckersley & Paul Spicer for Speckulation Entertainment for making a virtue of a tight timeslot between De Jongh's Plague Over England and Harwood's Collaboration and offering accessible tickets prices including a 'season ticket' at £50. Shame it was over so soon.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti