There are several smaller theatres in London which I follow on Twitter and haven't got round to visiting - and today I was able to tick one of those off the list when I saw The Last Session at the Tristan Bates Theatre. This is a lovely little theatre just off Covent Garden Seven Dials - I'd say about a hundred capacity with a great atmosphere to it. I love seeing shows in these smaller venues: such high quality and the added factor of the intimacy inherent in fringe venues too.
So first thing's first - The Last Session is a piece of musical theatre - and I use that phrase carefully. The word 'musical', as much as I love them, has connotations of glitziness, jazz hands and cheesy smiles and none of those you will find here. The piece plays out in real time set during a recording of an artist's "last session" in the studio - last as he is suffering with the AIDS virus and finding himself at a point of surrender.
The songs are beautifully sung and are interspersed with movingly played out drama - the interactions between five characters sharing this small studio, working together and through new and old conflicts and loves. I guess something which bugs people about musicals is how the characters will randomly break into song. Here, that frustration is removed by the narrative necessity of the recording of these songs. The emotion becomes raw as the words are truly meant - not just from the characters but also knowing that this is based on the real life experiences of the writer. There is a truth in the songs beyond the literal meaning of the word - this really is storytelling through music in it's strongest form.
As much as The Last Session is moving and inevitably heavy with the subject matter - it is also playful. The joking between the characters is natural and genuinely funny. The subject matter of HIV could often be dealt with as being precious - as if to insert humour would be insulting or derogatory when it fact it is quite the opposite. You suffer with an illness and you find the humour - it gets you through. There is an authenticity through this and it's satisfying to see the AIDS suffering Gideon winding up the fundamentally Christian and homosexual-fearing Buddy in a way which sidesteps awkwardness in favour of cheekiness. The production does this while also managing to engage in genuine political discourse - the balancing act here could be a difficult one but it manages it beautifully.
This is another production where the casting could raise eyebrows with Darren Day in the lead role. However this role is a far cry from previous roles in Summer Holiday and Grease where cheesiness was the name of the game. Here we see a much more complex performance encompassing strength and acceptance, but also fear and anger. In both his acting and vocals we see subtle switches between power and vulnerability - in his storytelling and also lovely blending between his head and chest voice. Day was moving without causing us to have an easy emotional reaction - it was a rounded performance that I will always remember. It's a shame his love rat reputation and casting in dubious musicals overshadowed his talent - but here we see Day clawing back his credibility with masses of star quality but also dignity in tow.
The cast of five all gave incredible performances and I am glad a soundtrack is being made. I lost count of the number of times I had goosebumps due to such stunning vocals and emotional moments (and no, I wasn't just cold!) which is quite a rare experience to have I find. The stand out performance for me came from A J Dean as Buddy, the new singer on the block with heaps of enthusiasm for his craft and his hero - but sadly also a ton of bigotry to match. Dean's voice excited me and I was disappointed when realising the show was coming to an end - wishing I would hear more of his rich voice with such a unique tone. I guess the comparison would be between Paolo Nutini and Johnny Cash - a nice change from the often clean cut vocals of musical theatre. I can see this being the start of a very exciting career and look forward to following Dean's progress.
As the show finished, the whole audience instanteously joined a standing ovation. I often feel emotional at curtain call - something about it just gets me but there was something about this show, its truthful beginnings and stunning production, that made this even more poignant than usual. It was only at this point when people started making speeches I realised this was the last day of the show and I wished I had seen it sooner to tell people they should get to see it.
Still, I so hope The Last Session has a future as it is so very deserved - being the most exciting piece of musical theatre I have seen in a fair while. I hope this also stands to prove the power of fringe theatre - it is a much more affordable theatre trip with an equal if not superior experience. So give it a go, and look out for The Last Session.
(See CliMar Productions for more information on this show and the production company behind it)