The Last Session - first seen in New York in 1997 and now making its belated European debut - threatens at times to be very, very good.
With moments of gut-wrenching emotion and genuinely affecting lyrics, the show takes a bold step away from the heritage of larger musical theatre, and tries to do something much more powerful: to tell a single, painful, eventually heartrending human story while realistically using music to supplement the action.
Singer-songwriter Gideon (Darren Day) is a long-term sufferer of HIV/Aids. Ready to surrender in his fight against the disease he gathers his nearest and dearest musical artists to record one final album for his partner of 13 years, Jack, to remember him by.
The set constitutes a wonderfully reproduced recording studio, complete with sound booth, platinum disks and lurking studio manager Jim (wonderfully played by Ron Emslie), the red walls evocative of Aids charities around the world. The single keyboard accompanying a fantastically talented cast provides minimalist support in the intimate Tristan Bates.
This intimacy is acknowledged in the producer's programme note. Strange then, that the sound levels are so very loud. The microphones are important to keep the situation real, but could certainly be turned down. Similarly, the strength of the piece is in playing this wonderfully crafted situation. Steve Schachlin’s lyrics are full of real human experience; “Connected” and the strongest, most evocative number “The Group” had me holding my breath.
Similarly Jim Brochu’s script is centered on the reactions between five very clearly drawn characters. It's a shame, however, that the reality and understated nature of the interactions are constantly undermined. The journey of Buddy, (Southern evangelical lad wants to cross over to pop from gospel, hates homosexuals, engages in brief Socratic dialogue with Gideon, eventually saves the day) is clear and well defined, and A.J Dean’s performance the stand out among a uniquely strong cast. It's a shame the Brochu undermines all this good work with terrible one-liners: “lets put the ‘sin’ into ‘sing’” being one such example.
We're welcomed back into the auditorium following the interval by the sound of “The Final Countdown”. The proceeding two musical numbers, “At Least I Know What’s Killing Me” and “Friendly Fire”, belong in a different (far worse) production, robbing the show of the hard earned intensity and genuine feeling of the first half through declamation and schmaltz.
This production of The Last Session has a wonderful cast and moments of real brilliance, but these are consistently undermined by the self-consciousness of both the text and direction.