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Monday, 22 October 2012

The Last Session - Tristan Bates Theatre - Sunday 21 October ****


Darren Day playing a suicidal, gay, HIV positive, Christian crossover one-hit wonder (the Baptist Barry Manilow no less)? Actually this is a whole heap better than it looks on paper. Loosely based on the show’s lyricist and composer Steve Schalchlin’s own experiences, his partner Jim Brochu wrote the book and the show became on off-Broadway hit in 1997.

Set over one evening in a disused nuclear fall-out shelter that has been converted into a studio, Gideon, Darren Day, is recording an album’s worth of songs reflecting on the last ten years of his life and his struggle with AIDS. The equilibrium is upset when one of his backing singers is unexpectedly replaced by an aspiring singer from the south who is Gideon’s biggest fan but also a fully signed up member of the fire and brimstone bible bashing fraternity. Previously unaware of Gideon’s sexuality, he makes it his mission to save Gideon from the hell and damnation that is certain to await him.

With two feisty females making up the backing trio, Tryshia, who sacrificed her career for her family, and Vicki, who sacrificed her career for good times and innumerable husbands, sparks fly with only world weary Jim, the studio owner, to calm stormy waters with his well intentioned witty interventions.

One by one the gorgeous gospel infused songs reveal Gideon’s struggles with his sexuality and his illness, the support and unconditional love of his partner Jack and the blackness that has bought him to this one last recording session.

 

The cast really is faultless. Day has probably the hardest role as his is the central story and there is little levity to break the gloom, but he proves to be the flame around which all the others flutter. I had previously dismissed Day out hand simply because of the tabloid inches he seems to fill, his notoriety coming before any assessment of his talent, but there is a reason he is successful and his singing voice is a rare gift, ably conveying emotions in a line that would otherwise take pages of dialogue. I just wish he was able to accompany himself on the piano, as his miming to an off-stage pianist is unconvincing, especially at such close quarters. He is supported by four great actors. Lucy Vandi and Simone Craddock sparking off each other and scoring points as Tryshia and Vicki; Ron Emslie’s world weary Jim a masterclass in subtle underplaying, anxious and worried about his friend but with a wry quip never far from his tongue; and finally A J Dean, sensational in an almost thankless role as the blinkered Christian homophobe Buddy, eventually letting his guard slip as the humanity of the situation outweighs his staunch Baptist beliefs. It would be tough to convince an enlightened metropolitan audience that Buddy deserves anything less than excommunication so extreme are his views, but Dean allows the vulnerability of the small boy alone in the big city shine through so that both Day’s Gideon and us behind the fourth wall of the studio can glimpse the chance for his salvation from bigotry. This in turn gives Gideon hope that his redemption from the dark recesses of his soul is achievable with the love of Jack and his friends.

If I’m brutally honest, there are occasions when the book does slip into mawkish sentimentality that is difficult for us Brits to stomach, but these are few and far between and are more than outweighed by the wonderful songs and the truly magnificent performances from the 5 strong cast. The first act closer, Going It Alone, has stayed with me ever since I left the theatre. There are apparently both dvd and cast recordings to come in January and I will be first in the virtual queue at Amazon.

Booking until 27 October 2012, this is the final week and it's one not to miss, so be quick - The Last Session

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