Friday, 26 April 2013

Theatre review: Rooms - A Rock Romance

In the speculation over who will succeed Nicholas Hytner as Artistic Director of the National Theatre in two years' time, one name unlikely to even cross the selection panel's minds is Neil McPherson. But he runs an unsubsidised, 50-seat room above a failed pub as if it were the National; I can only imagine what he could achieve if you gave him some actual resources to work with. The Finborough regularly punches above its weight in new writing, political theatre, classic revivals and international work, and now it reminds us it can also do the unashamed crowd-pleaser. The venue's occasional musicals tend to be revivals but this is the European premiere of Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon's 2005 off-Broadway hit Rooms - A Rock Romance. There's not much that's new about the story of co-songwriters who fall in love, but Andrew Keates' production makes it fresh, helped by some strong tunes.

In 1977 Glasgow, single-minded singer Monica (Cassidy Janson) has no doubt she's going to be a star, and her search for a composer to set her lyrics to music leads her to a grungy bedroom. Ian (Alexis Gerred) prefers not to leave this room, finding alcohol and his guitar better company than anyone outside. But once she's coaxed him out once to perform their first composition together, Monica's influence soon sees him follow her much further afield, to London then New York, as they enjoy a brief moment of fame and a love affair that may or may not end up just as brief.

For all that the title trumpets the show's rock credentials, real-life couple Goodman and Gordon's songs are classic musical theatre at heart, relentlessly catchy foot-tappers that progress the narrative and give the cast a chance to belt out plenty of duets as well as at least one solo showstopper each, "Bring the Future Faster" for Janson and "Fear of Flying" for Gerred. It's in the arrangement of the songs that the rock edge comes in, and it's performed here by a great four-piece band who join in the fun of some of the story's lighter moments. I usually grumble about singers being mic'd up in such a small venue but given how right Tom Lishman's sound design gets the balance there's nothing to complain about here.

The show is very, very Scottish, with the accent creeping Proclaimers-like into the singing, so it's a shame that the actors struggle with it, Gerred's sometimes wandering Southwards while Janson's regularly veers West to Ulster. I also suspect that not everyone will be as charmed by the show as I (and the rest of tonight's audience, who gave it a standing ovation) was, and for some it'll be a cheese-fest - the attempts at a more serious side are rather heavy-handedly written. But I was completely sucked in by it and was contemplating whether I can fit in a return visit before it had even finished.

The strong songs are complemented by the fun that Keates injects, and Janson and Gerred seem to be having on stage. Monica's determination for fame means she's willing to be whoever it takes to make her name, from Streisand to cabaret singer, via her disastrous debut appearance with Ian singing a woefully inappropriate song, "Scottish Jewish Princess," at her cousin's Bat Mitzvah ("there's a lot more gefilte fish in the sea",) and their reinvention as a cash-in punk band, The Diabolical. Her ambition and his alcoholism get in the way of both their music and their relationship but the show kept a smile on my face even as things go wrong (it's told in flashback so it's no spoiler to say they do at least meet again a couple of years down the line.) Neill Brinkworth's lighting really contributes atmosphere on Phil Lindley's two-sided thrust stage, taking us to various rooms and clubs. Rooms is a simple joy but it really is a joy; it wouldn't surprise me if it becomes the latest Finborough show to get a transfer.

Rooms - A Rock Romance by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon is booking until the 18th of May at the Finborough.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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