Review: Bright Lights, Big City – Hoxton Hall ***

It’s taken 11 years for Paul Scott Goodman’s Off-Broadway rock musical to surface in London, and it’s hard to imagine a better case being made for it than Christopher Lane’s energetic, strongly cast production. There are echoes of Hair, Rent, and myriad other rock musicals to be found in Goodman’s score and lyrics, which lack their own distinctive identity. Yet as delivered with flair and passion by Lane’s well-drilled cast, and a robust-sounding four piece band, the musical adaptation of Jay McInerney’s novel makes for an engaging and entertaining 80 minutes.

The musical charts a chaotic week in the life of Jamie, a creatively blocked writer living in 1980s New York, spiralling into a cycle of drugs and sex after his wife abandons him. The fundamental problem with the piece is that Jamie remains a mystery to the audience: we never find out anything about his writing, or learn anything about his marriage before its collapse. As a result, it’s nigh-on impossible to become involved in his predicament. The emotional centre of the piece develops too late, with a climactic confessional between Jamie, his brother and his deceased mother that nevertheless manages to tug at the heartstrings.

The multi-tasking ensemble leaps and thrusts around the tiny, three-tier set with stunning fearlessness

Still, the sung-through musical is packed with highly listenable melodies that are performed with conviction by an impressive, West End calibre cast. Paul Ayres is an intense, haunted presence as Jamie, centring the show’s erratic energy with commendable restraint. Rachael Wooding lends a sense of tragic glamour to the underwritten role of Jamie’s model wife, while Matthew Gent brings real emotional heft to his appearances as Jamie’s brother. The multi-tasking ensemble leaps and thrusts around the tiny, three-tier set with stunning fearlessness, although Fabian Aloise’s choreography has a tendency to be distractingly over-emphatic.

Early on there are intriguing surreal touches that recall Hair’s boundary breaking, but Goodman’s writing is too cautious to develop these, instead settling for a conventional narrative journey towards romantic and creative fulfilment. The persuasive performances and vibrancy of the production are crucial in ensuring that the production remains absorbing throughout, despite the considerable flaws of the piece itself. As a thoroughly welcome example of how to produce contemporary musical theatre to a high standard on the fringe, this production should be a bright enough light to fill Hoxton Hall for the remaining two weeks of its run.

*** (3 stars)
Runs until 25th November
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