Undoubtedly, this is a talented cast; they paint their characters thickly, and treat us to some fantastic vocal performances. Some of Steve Schalchin’s songs are beautiful, and The Last Session’s subject matter certainly has an impact on its audience. There are a few snags though. The American accents do waver just a touch too much for my liking, and the writing, although understandably popular with its initial audience in New York (not just because of its style, but also due to the then more shocking and controversial issues within the text), does not necessarily hold the same power, nor the same gravitas, here in London 15 years on.
I’m not saying that I was sitting there, rigidly unyielding to the emotional plot; there were definitely some strong, heart-rending moments, but putting emotional effect to one side (though I’m fully aware of its importance), the question to ask is: did the production work?
The Last Session tells the story of a man, a musician and composer, who has been struggling with AIDS for what he now feels is too long. He’s ready to take back control of his life in the only way he feels he can: by ending it. He therefore organises his last recording session the day before he plans to surrender. This does not mean, however, that the show needs to be a completely depressing and truly miserable piece, and it certainly isn’t. There is an awful lot of comedy in the script, and it wins some hearty reactions from the audience. About 20 minutes in, though, I started to feel like I was watching an American sitcom. You can almost hear the canned laughter as jokes are set up nearly every 30 seconds. There are a lot of clichés, most of the characters are absolute stereotypes (no matter how well the cast play them), and overall, the script lacks originality.
Hold on though, perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps none of this matters. I’ll happily admit that I’m a fan of American sitcoms, but the only reason that any of this does bother me, is because this style of humour almost seems to detract some of the sincerity away from this piece, particularly when you consider the topic. It is almost stifled by its own humour. As I said earlier though, humour is still a necessary element, and there are times when it works, especially when the humour is slightly darker, closer to the bone, and more daring.
Regardless of its flaws, there is certainly a bold vision realised in this production, both in terms of characters, and design. Ruth Hall’s recording studio set feels bohemian, but also kitschy, which fits the 90s era well.
What I would suggest for this piece now is adaption. It clearly worked in New York, years ago. It’s a moving piece of theatre, which eventually portrays a heartwarming message I fully support, but in order that it work more effectively in London, I see no reason it could not be updated, maybe even set in a British recording studio, some of the jokes edited and altered, and, generally, freshened up. OK, so not every show needs to, or should, be adapted – there are some timeless classics – but in this context, I feel it would help, rather than hinder.
I wholeheartedly back important shows like The Last Session; they’re spreading a valuable message and they’re educating. Often, people hide away from learning the truth about HIV and AIDS, some not even knowing the difference between the two (as is highlighted in The Last Session). Nowadays there’s an unnecessary and ignorance-born stigma attached to HIV. If any show can inform and promote tolerance and understanding on the subject, then I’m all for it.