Rooms – A Rock Romance is a cracking live gig, there’s no doubt about it. I wouldn’t say the songs are likely to redefine chord progressions in 21st century music, but the two vocalists could be actual rock-stars.
Supported by a tight, grooving band, they fill this particular room at the Finborough with enough moments of sheer belting force to distract you from any cracks in the skirting boards. Not that the foundations of this piece are shaky; if anything, Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon’s book is wittier, Goodman’s music meatier and Andrew Keates’s staging neater than many a new piece of musical theatre recently seen in the West End. It just wouldn’t be a huge surprise to discover that Rooms was written in the mid-90s, at the height of the intimate rock-chamber-opera sub-genre, centred on personal and professional frustrations in an overwhelming urban sprawl (invariably New York.) In a decade’s time, it may qualify as “retro” but for the moment, it’s just the other side of that shifting blurred line, in “dated” territory.
The theatre precursor most readily called to mind by this show is Jonathan Larson, most famous for his heart-on-sleeve bohemian epic Rent, but also responsible for an earlier smaller-scale work, tick, tick”¦ BOOM!, with which Rooms shares many similarities – struggling musician, charismatic girlfriend, conflicting lifestyle choices, angst-ridden confessional outpourings.
Where Goodman and Gordon deviate from Larson’s blueprint is in their reduction of his triangle of performers to a simple duo and their relocation to a Scottish setting, a stroke of genius that allows peculiarities of Glaswegian accent and idiom to newly-mint this old theatrical currency. Solipsistic Ian (Gerred) is a guitar-obsessed loner forcibly pulled out of his room by gutsy firecracker Monica (Janson); together, they form a punk-rock duo called The Diabolicals and travel to London to make their name, in a couple of rousing numbers that briefly send the show through the roof with sheer energy and wit. The pair are promptly picked up by a record label and flown to (you guessed it) New York, where cracks begin to show as Ian’s self-destructive alcoholism and Monica’s fierce ambition cause a rift between them that takes time to heal. Take all that furniture away, though, and this bare room is pure 90s Larson.
In keeping with such a homage, Goodman’s lyrics are an odd mix of witticisms and clangers. Two glorious numbers hit the mark both musically and lyrically: ‘Scottish Jewish Princess’, in which Monica and Ian sing about a girl’s burgeoning bisexuality in front of her parents at her bat mitzvah, and ‘All I Want is Everything’, the expletive-laden, middle-finger-brandishing hit that launches The Diabolicals into the charts. Elsewhere, phrasing could have come straight out of the Sir Tim Rice Handbook of Awkward Rhymes. Janson is a very watchable actor, but even she struggles to pull off such cringe-inducing couplets as “This is an epic farce / Watch me fall on my arse.” Monica’s preparation for an impending pregnancy test – “I’m just going to wee and let science do the rest” – is definitely a contender for the top spot on my list of unbelievable lyrics, threatening to topple Judas singing “Did Mohammed move a mountain or was that just PR?” in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Both performers are exceptionally at ease with the material, and it’s testament to their considerable charms that we are inclined to forgive the libretto such linguistic atrocities. Certainly, Larson himself was guilty of similar, perhaps worse – “Life’s too short, babe, time is flyin’ / I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine” – yet the autobiographical sincerity of Rent, combined with a handful of truly classic rock songs, helped to rose-tint the occasional inane phrase. This show doesn’t get away with quite as much, unfortunately. Goodman and Gordon’s musical cannot hope to be as potentially epoch-defining as the ambitious Rent proved to be, since it is so fundamentally modelled on the era that Larson already defined, but Rooms is nonetheless a feelgood piece of entertainment, and far more charming than its few flaws should really permit.