First performed back in 1997 in New York the GLAAD Media Award-winning play The Last Session finally debuts in London.Darren Day pays singer-songwriter Gideon who, after a long battle with HIV and AIDS has decided to surrender. He gathers his closest friends in the industry to, unbeknownst to them, record one final album for his partner of 13 years, Jack. Set in 1996, a time when treatment for the HIV and AIDS virus was far from established, The Last Session is a bittersweet mix of hope, comedy, despair and suffering.
Having taken up residency at the intimate Tristan Bates theatre in the heart of London’s West End, the proximity of the stage itself to the audience allows this already hard-hitting and heartrending story to become even more evocative. The set is a reproduced recording studio, complete with old posters, framed discs, a keyboard, a sound booth and Jim the sudio manager who is portrayed by Ron Emslie.
One by one Gideon’s friends start to arrive, ready to get started on the album that he insists is to be recorded in one, single take. He is joined by two rival backing singers played by Lucy Vandi, known as The Diva, and Simone Craddock, Gideon’s ex-wife who arrives swigging vodka and clad in a pair of tight leather trousers. The last to arrive is a young Bapist from America’s deep South who is played by AJ Dean. He arrives in the place of one of Gideon’s old friends who couldn’t make it, but when he finds out that Gideon, his childhood idol, is gay, he battles between his faith and his dream of becoming a recording artist.
The characters are all well written and the cast superbly matched, and with such a wonderful plot to work with it is a shame that lyricist Brochu occasionally falls back on some truly shockingly poor lyrics that, unfortunately, distract from the otherwise powerful performances. Whilst most of the songs are well-suited to the story, songs such as ‘Friendly Fire’, where Baptist Buddy dons an army helmet and substitute gun and rolls away the stage pretending to be under enemy attack, seem ill-fitting. However, songs such a ‘Save Me A Seat’ had the audience fighting to hold back their tears.
AJ Dean undoubtedly steals the show with his fantastic voice and great portrayal of a mine in turmoil, whilst it is nice to see Darren Day return to the London stage in such a trying role that really allows him to flex his acting muscles. I was also particularly impressed with Simon Craddock whose character was undoubtedly a favourite amongst the audience.
The ‘twist’ ending wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone in the theatre, but it was heart-warming and hopeful, a welcome relief after some of the plays more harrowing scenes; I hope to see this little-known musical make a few waves on the London theatre scene.