Escaping the chill of the east London air, you retreat into Hoxton Hall where tonight, in this beautiful Victorian music hall, you are transported back to the mid-’80s New York party scene for the UK premiere of Bright Lights Big City.
A musical adaptation of Jay McInerney’s 1984 cult novel, you are dubious as to whether this performance could ever translate the near perfection of the novel to the stage. You are slightly biased, having read and loved the book but considering your now-not-so-secret love of rock musicals you are intrigued to see how Glaswegian songwriter Paul Scott Goodman has translated the book to the stage – a risky manoeuvre in any case.
With a cast of ten, all fresh from West End shows, the stage is filled with enthusiastic nostalgia with the opening number of the eponymous ‘Bright Lights Big City’ inviting you to leave your morals and fashion sense at the door and get down and dirty with the New York City yuppies.
While you may have forgotten your Ray-Bans and your tube dress or neglected to roll up the sleeves on your polyester blazer, thankfully the cast have committed to the garish wardrobes of the era with wonderful authenticity, making you wish you still had those crimping irons you once loved…
Ok, the second person narration needs to stop.
This was, for anyone who has read the book, my vain attempt to pay homage to Jay McInerney’s literary experiment of writing Bright Lights Big City in the second person. However, just as this style does not easily translate to a review, it is a similarly difficult transition to the stage. For a novel in which not very much actually happens in terms of plot, this adaptation of Bright Lights Big City is a valiant effort, and succeeds in capturing the shameless hedonism of the 1980s yuppie party scene where life was fuelled by ‘drain-o for the brain-o’ and polyester.
Jamie (Paul Ayres) is a young struggling writer who follows said bright lights to the big city to pursue his dream but instead finds himself seduced by the ‘monstrous events’ his deviant friend Tad (George Maguire) delivers with a never ending side of cocaine and ladies. Seemingly party boys can’t have it all and as such, while he continues to pursue more narcotic aspirations, Jamie toils away in a magazine’s factual verification department – that is until he is fired.
The unrelenting passionate energy of the cast fills the stage during the ensemble numbers, where like the ’80s themselves, subtlety is by no means the name of the game as exemplified by songs featuring lines such as: ‘I love drugs’ and ‘I want to have sex tonight’ complemented by a wonderfully graphic dance routine that lit up the eyes of the elderly lady beside me.
The party scenes make great entertainment as everyone happily frolics in the ‘snow’ that perpetually falls in the bathroom of their favourite nightspot, but unfortunately it is at the expense of the emotion you’d expect as Jamie contemplates the consequences of his lifestyle. While the inclusion of an estranged brother and a dead mother, reminding us a guy like him shouldn’t be coming home at 6am Sunday morning, allowed the actors to showcase their vocal talents without the distraction of pelvic thrusts, I struggled to ever really sympathise with Jamie – these kids are just too good at having fun.
Standout performances come from Rachael Wooding as the lascivious ex-wife Amanda, and kudos must be given to Jodie Jacobs whose transformation from crop-top wearing party girl to Jamie’s romantic saviour, Vicky, all with the flick of a scrunchie, is commendable.
With such a strong cast and choreography by Fabian Aloise, it’s a shame to see these young actors stifled as the emotional projection championed in the novel gets lost in the snow storm. Still, if rock musicals are your thing, or perhaps you need inspiration for an ’80s revival, Bright Lights Big City is a lighthearted, enjoyable flashback to this vastly undervalued era.
Bright Lights, Big City is showing until November 25, 2010, at:
130 Hoxton Street
Image © Garry Lake with lighting by Andy Furby