Written and performed by Anthony Rapp
At the Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Until September 15, 2012.
Can you ever successfully dramatise bereavement without exploiting that most personal of emotions? What's more, how can you approach it as a critic without seeming to intrude on personal grief? The key must be whether the work is using the fact of bereavement as a starting point to say something bigger. Losing a loved one is something everyone will have to experience at some stage but while it is a shared pain, it is an individual and a personal one and there isn't much to say about it that is universal without resorting to banalities. It requires delicate shading not broad brushstrokes.
Anthony Rapp was one of the lead actors in Rent, the phenomenally successful rock opera based on Puccini's La Boheme. On Jan 25 1996 on the eve of its first public preview, off-Broadway, the show's talented creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly from a rare undiagnosed heart condition, aged just 35. His early death made the themes of loss and bereavement in the piece even more poignant. Here of course the artists were dying not from consumption in Paris but from HIV/Aids in 80s New York. Around this time Rapp was also contending with the agonising surrender to cancer of his own mother back in a small town in Illinois and his regular visits to her framed his newfound success with a bittersweet sadness.
Backed by a superb 5-piece band led by Daniel A Weiss, Rapp recounts both parallel stories with sharply delineated portraits of all the characters involved. The musical interludes include the signature songs from the show. He recounts the struggle to sing the unforgettable 'Seasons of Love' at a special performance the night after Larson died and that great elegy 'Without You' provides a heart-wrenching coda to the piece.
Rapp's geeky cool is still in evidence at 41. He's an engaging stage presence and possessed of a great, ragged, rock stadium voice. Straying from Rent he delivers a stonking rendition of REM's 'Losing My Religion' and a honky-tonk country rock number called 'Wild Bill' (titled after his mother's name for her tumour). Both of these, and the great band, made me long to hear more of him exploring fresh material.
The piece recalled two recent one-man-shows about loss which navigated this terrain more successfully. The actor Chris Larner's brilliant An Instinct for Kindness (at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year) about the assisted suicide of his wife at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland and Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The former had at its core a key ethical question facing us all today and was delivered by an expert story teller while the latter was a great writer in her mid seventies lyrically exploring her own mortality. Both moved beyond the pain, in ways that Without You doesn't achieve.
A good weepie or a sentimental tune can work as a cathartic wallow, and that is fine, but in the theatre you need to try and take us one step beyond that.