tick, tick…BOOM! – review

tick, tick…BOOM. Images Claire Bilyard

We all have a watershed moment in our lives and for 29-year-old Jon it was his rapidly approaching 30th birthday.

“tick, tick…Boom!” was the sound of Jon’s increasing anxiety and helplessness, the beat of his soon-to-be middle-aged heart, the rhythmic thump of ambitions unfulfilled, the detonation of dreams and hopes for the future.

Yes, Jon Larson was writing about himself again in pretty much the same way that he did with Rent, his one and only really big stage hit which, tragically, became a post mortem success.

There is something incredibly poignant in seeing a Larson production knowing, as all fans do, that he died just days before Rent opened. We’re watching a struggling playwright desperate to make an impact and sadly, when he did he didn’t live long enough to see it.

Tick, tick… BOOM could almost be Larsson on a countdown to his own demise. The musical, which has just opened at London’s Park Theatre is charming and likeable, a bit like Jon himself, but rough around the edges and in need of a polish (also like Jon).

Chris Jenkins, who made such an impact at the Park in Burnt Part Boys, here plays the anxious Jon and there are times when he struggles to raise his voice over the very small band.

But he captures the impatience, frustration and terror of a man on the brink. I couldn’t help thinking that he ought to have been singing about lost youth and ambitions when he was 49. At 29? Ha, he’s just a baby.

tick, tick…BOOM! covers a lot of familiar territory – Jon’s fight for recognition, AIDs, the death of a close friend, and, cheekily, Stephen Sondheim.

It’s a heartfelt story about life, love and following your dreams.

But what it brings to life is New York with the sounds and smells of its districts, the tribes who inhabit its streets, a lexicon of places that are probably intimately known to the writer. It is fantastically evocative.

The play reads more like a love letter to New York than a story of a man who is terrifed of growing up, his exasperated girlfriend, and his gay best mate who joined the rat race for a high powered job and the trappings of wealth.

Us girls can empathise with Susan (Gillian Saker) who wants Jon to get a proper job, settle down, face middle age with a mortgage, a house of their own, and responsibility.

Acting the college student, following his dreams, was fine in his 20s, but now tough decisions must be made. The boy has to become a man. Time to put away childish, possibly unattainable, dreams.

‘It feels more like Doomsday,’ moans a depressed Jon just a few hours shy of his 30th.

Larson’s melodic songs are packed with cute, funny, quirky lyrics that will make you smile. There aren’t many people who can write a tune about America’s favourite Twinkie bar.

Jordan Shaw, as best friend Michael, impresses with a powerful singing voice and engaging performance. There’s a profound tragedy in his character, a shooting star who briefly burns brightly buying up Gucci belts and luxury Beamer, before its light is prematurely extinguished.

Saker is a natural comedy actress who plays Susan plus a variety of supporting roles, from Jon’s Jewish agent, his mother, and a girl in the playright’s first musical, to a soulless exec trying to sell a fat-busting cream.

tick, tick…BOOM! certainly benefits from using the intimate P90 stage. I fear that it would be lost anywhere larger. As it is the audience feels like they’re voyeurs at Jon’s birthday bash. We’re part of the furniture in his down-at-heel SoHo loft.

tic, tick…BOOM! runs at the Park Theatre until May 27.

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