tick, tick … BOOM! – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Book, Lyrics and Music: Jonathan Larson
Director: Adam Lacey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight


Jonathan Larson is best known for Rent, his musical based on La Bohème and relocated to New York City. But before he hit the big time, he spent years waiting tables, writing in the evenings and weekends, living in unheated apartments waiting for the big break. Tragically, of course, just as he achieved that he died suddenly on 25 January 1996, just as Rent was about to preview.

But before Rent, there was tick, tick …BOOM!, billed as a semi-autobiographical piece. Originally written as a rock monologue, after his death it was reworked to use three actors, one playing Jon the struggling composer; the others his roommate, Michael, girlfriend Susan and all the other characters who appear.

Jon is a week away from being 30. He is still waiting tables and waiting for the break. His roommate has given up acting and is now a marketing executive with a swish new apartment and BMW. His girlfriend wants to settle down out of the city. Jon isn’t sure what he wants. His new musical, Superbia (named after a musical Larson did, indeed, write) is to be workshopped; maybe it will cause a buzz and kickstart his career. On the other hand, the clock is most certainly ticking away as he approaches 30. tick, tick … BOOM! chronicles this week in his life as challenges appear and he must cope with change and make decisions.

Larson’s book is intimate; Jon addresses the audience directly, telling his story firsthand. The intimate space of the Old Joint Stock’s theatre fits this very well. However, at times, we feel as if we are watching tennis when characters are at either end of the long narrow stage, for example, during phone calls. Nevertheless, the setting and the book feel real, supported by the measured direction of Adam Lacey. The characters are fully rounded.

Joshua Dowen is excellent as Jon. He hits the spot with his angst and changes in mood. The very first song, 30/90, about his feelings of being 30 in 1990, is perhaps a touch hesitant and initially the harmonies with the other cast members don’t quite gel. The cast soon grows in confidence, however, and the songs become a major part of the storytelling and mood setting. Particularly moving is Why towards the end; Dowen really brings out the vulnerability Jon is feeling here with hardly a dry eye in the house.

Undoubtedly the strongest singer is the appropriately named Jessica Singer as Susan and other female characters. Despite having a very striking appearance with bright red hair, she slips into and out of other characters with ease, always being believable. Susan is a dancer, and Singer imbues her with the necessary grace and economy of movement.

Rhys Owen’s Michael is gritty. We can see his real desire to help Jon into the corporate world, whether Jon wants to or not. Michael has his own challenges that could easily descend into melodrama, but that is deftly avoided with a solid and grounded performance.

Revived to commemorate the life of Larson almost exactly 40 years after his untimely death, this is a production he would undoubtedly recognise; one grounded in reality, thought-provoking and, ultimately, uplifting.

Runs until: 30 January 2016| Image: Adam Lacey

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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