Stay Awake, Jake continues at the Vaults until 7 February.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Composer/lyricist Tim Gilvin has developed and honed his one-act, one-man musical into a captivating journey that, with the help of a top-class performer (and some uncomfortable seating) keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Stay Awake, Jake was Gilvin’s winning entry in the 2014 S&S Awards, a showcase of new and as-yet unproduced musical theatre writing judged by a panel of industry experts. Excerpts from the show were presented at the S&S Award Gala last November, when Norman Bowman took on the titular role, and was showcased at the Leicester Square; now the complete show has been reworked and expanded, and programmed for the Pit space as part of the Vault Festival beneath Waterloo Station. And – with no disrespect to Bowman – it’s also been blessed with the appearance of the most interesting rising star in the West End, Jamie Muscato.
Stay Awake, Jake tracks a few hours in the life of comicbook writer Jake as he makes a 2 am drive from London to Carlisle. As the 300-mile journey unfolds, we get to know this geeky character better and learn why he’s making the trip. The audience is along for the ride: we’re all passengers in Jake’s car – and his scrambled mind – listening to his thoughts, delivered as a sung-through stream of consciousness that slowly reveals ever more about his twentysomething life.
Director Matt Ryan and Designer Lee Newby rightly keep everything spare and restrained, presenting the drama in the simplest of fashions. The set is merely four chairs representing the car, and the only props are the snacks and sketchpad in Jake’s backpack. Also on stage is the band: MD Jo Cichonska at the piano, stage right, and cellist María Rodríguez, stage left. This leaves Lighting Designer Howard Hudson with the responsibility of throwing focus on Muscato, which he does most effectively.
Gilvin has created an intelligent piece of a contemporary musical in the vein of Jason Robert Brown’s Last Five Years or Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, with all the introversion, self-analysis and navel-gazing that seems to be a common – and welcome – feature of new writing. The songs effectively paint a picture of the protagonist by flowing rhapsodically and hypnotically from start to finish as his confused thoughts pinball around his head; there are only the merest of gaps between songs – no buttons for applause here, thankfully, but equally no one’s leaving the Vaults humming the tunes.
It’s the choice of Jamie Muscato as Jake, though, that really makes this show stand out. With a lesser actor in the role, I do wonder how engaged I’d be with the material. Muscato is an exciting new face and definitely destined for great things. He extracts every ounce of life and humour from the character, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. He also handles the music effortlessly and is utterly believable as a young man challenged by the realities of adulthood.
Stay Awake, Jake is still work in progress, and I reckon there’s probably more that can be done with Gilvin’s book. In particular, the (neat) subtextual use of Jake’s comic book could be explored further, disappearing as it does half way through the show. I’d also like to see a little more variety in the music: it’s stylishly monochromatic but could do with a burst of colour here and there. Nevertheless, this an engaging new piece of writing by a rising star, and I’m keen follow both on their journey. I’d also urge you to support the Vault Festival for its dedication to new writing… and at just £16 a ticket, it’s exceptionally good value, despite the rather uncomfortable bench seating in the Pit.