Jake’s Progress began well enough. A basic set neatly arranged to look like a teenager’s bedroom; an excellent Liam Shaw fitting neatly into the role of 19 year old aspiring indie musician Jake; an opening scene with a little gentle comedy to draw us all in. Then suddenly, abruptly, everything went horribly wrong. Everyone started to sing.
Jake’s Progress was not advertised as a musical. Moreover, it was not advertised as an original musical: the songs are all the creations of writer Richard O’Brien and musical director Matt Kennedy. As a musical, the piece is, quite frankly, abysmal. There is no other way to describe it. The cast, though quite fine actors, are certainly not the best singers around. The songs themselves are flat and indistinct. The lyrics are nothing more than a string of clichés, barely relevant to the plot. As I left the theatre, I couldn’t recall a single line of any song, so faint had been the impression, so shallow the emotion. However, with credit to O’Brien, an original musical is an impressively ambitious, even foolhardy, undertaking. There is, of course, ample opportunity to compensate in the dramatic elements of the production; even poor music can find resonance if accompanied by compelling plot.
This was, however, not the case. It would be difficult to conceive a more facile, derivative and meaningless plot that what this production offers. Jake is a young musician from Grimsby who goes to London in search of a musical career – he is signed to a record label, the fame goes to his head, his fall is as rapid as his rise, and (you guessed it) by the end he realises who his true friends are. Though the plot is as old as the music industry itself, what is even more shocking than the unoriginality was the sheer laziness of exposition that sprung from it. I can only assume that since both writer and director knew that anyone who had been exposed to western culture in the last century would be familiar with the plot of their play in its entirety, they felt no need to actually include any actual storyline. We only see a series of disjointed scenes, with no sense of time or space between them, no coherence and no continuity. In exchange, do we receive deeper characterisation, more complex and nuanced relationships between Jake and his ex-girlfriend, or the agent who has feelings for him? No – we get yet more dire musical numbers.
Even so, each of these meandering scenes shows a little flair. Will Davies as the foul-mouthed, sexually aggressive record executive exhibits comic brilliance, helped by the string of cracking one-liners. His relationship with his underlings Carenza (Maria Fleischer) and Tabitha (Marie Findlay) is especially rich comic ground; indeed, it is only the trio’s interactions with Jake that make the play watchable. The chorus are all equally capable, and the dry satire of indie culture their scenes offer is amusing, if not especially original – but once, again it falls down once they try and put it into song.
Jake’s Progress is clearly a play by a very talented writer; yet somehow, it misses the mark in every possible way. The design, the acting and the production standards are all perfectly serviceable: there is just a total lack of any substance, or character or direction to give the play life. It becomes nothing more than a mishmash of lacklustre music and insincere dialogue: it is, in short, irredeemable.