Review – Bright Lights, Big City – Hoxton Hall

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Bright Lights, Big City wis a classic novel of 1980s life – a life that utterly passed me by (as I was making my way through high school and then college) – that’s often been compared to The Great Gatsby in terms of skilfully catching the energy of its era (and the whole “lost youth” vibe). I, however, have never read Jay McInerney’s novel, but I was eager to take the opportunity to see the musical that had been made from it when an offer for press tickets appeared in my inbox. I like new musicals and I had no corrupting vision of “that was/wasn’t in the book” to affect my enjoyment, so I bounced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, over to … er, was it really being held in Hoxton? Oh well, it was close to work, so there I went (be advised walking from Old Street is a completely reasonable option and taking the bus from this tube stop is a waste of time versus travelling on foot).

Before I get into the show, I want to talk a bit about Hoxton Hall, the venue. It is, in a word, charming, basically all of the promise of Wilton’s Music Hall come to life, with gorgeous wrought-iron balconies and great ceiling detail. However, the floor is completely flat, and for this reason you might want to be careful of where you sit. My position, in the front row, actually suffered from not being far enough from the stage and forcing me to look at things from a strange angle – though I’m guessing the set was built up enough audience members further back were able to see things well enough. However, I have a sneaking suspicion the balcony seats might actually be preferable – but as there was no interval I wasn’t able to test my theory.

The play is a week in the life of Jamie (Paul Ayres), a youngish guy not far out of college with a fairly uninspiring job ding “factual verification” for Gotham Magazine. It’s the kind of job I fought for when I moved to the East Coast in ’95, but Jamie finds it a huge drag and isn’t able to commit to it. His life really only seems alive when he’s at the nightclubs, where he and the other many denizens of the play dance, snort coke, and do their best to hook up with each other (much facilitated by the blow). This is the environment that provides most of the memorable moments of the play, both textually (references to “Dran-o for the brain-o” coe to mind) and musically. I think in particular of “Odeon,” with the immortal lines “It’s snowing in the bathroom!” and the impressive subtlety of “I wanna have sex tonight!” The cast went pretty wild for these numbers and really filled the space with energy and an 80s trashiness that made me kind of nostalgic for whatever it was I missed by being responsible and making sure I was ready to work instead of going out and partying it up every night.

Unsurprisingly, I had an inability to sympathize with Jamie’s situation. His marriage had fallen apart; he has unresolved grief issues about his mom; he is in danger of losing his job; he blows off his brother. Paul Ayres had such a realistic hang-dog look about him that he could in no way convince me that Jamie was really just a misunderstood, struggling genius; to me, he seemed like a lazy, self-pitying jerk whom his wife Amanda (Rachael Wooding, great legs and a pleasure to watch dance) was lucky to escape from. In fact, the pair of them were so shallow I found them rather despicable; even the scenes of Jamie with his mom didn’t move me. So while I liked the vibrancy of this show and the fact it was sung through, overall it left me untouched; the songs, while scandalous and shocking at times, didn’t have the musicality I prefer. Still, if you enjoy the “rock” style musical a la Spring Awakening or have a soft spot for the book, you’ll probably find this a good night out and the trek to Hoxton worth your time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tueday, November 9th, 2010. Bright Lights, Big City continues through November 25th at Hoxton Hall.)

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