Brighton Fringe 2015
"A rock opera set in Death’s waiting room. An unnamed protagonist is mugged and left for dead in the street. While his fate is being ‘processed’, the Angel of Death helps him realise that his legacy leaves a little to be desired."
From the moment you enter the Old Courtroom you know you are waiting to be judged – which is a fitting place for a reviewer to find him or herself in. Fallen Angels croon in unison and we are asked to fill out a form, giving an account of our lives. We enter the auditorium, and the story of Trim Tab Jim unfolds, in words, music, theatre and film. It is a musical that builds its narrative, with designed phases that serve as stages in the story. Our central character, Jim, is played with a necessary understatement by James Mannion, for he is the Common Man who must stand before judgement, in Death’s Waiting Room, and be reckoned as either heading into fire or the Light. A little of Dante, even of Carousel are at play here – darkly comic takes on the divine and the purpose of incarnartion.
This is billed as a rock opera and there’s certainly plenty of rock. Mannion is the sole singer as a narrative develops that I am not going to reveal for fear of spoiling the proceedings. All I will say of the story is that it holds the attention throughout, is well structured and paced. Can we make a difference? I was reminded of the work of James Wilk and the Law of Minimal Intervention. We may be one among billions but we have a duty, if we care enough, to shake the whole system by shaking up what we can. Mannion has offered us agit prop theatre for the second decade of the 21st Century and he and his company have succeeded in that offer.
The concept of “trim tab” I will not spoil for you but it embodies a powerful metaphor for the whole show and also a message that is strongly moral, a call to action, backed up by real initiatives and web sites offered at the end of the show. We have causes to fight and choices to make and Life gives us an opportunity for action and reaction. Trim Tab Jim has a world view, a dissatisfaction with the world’s dominant take on money, on education, on our freedom to experience our minds, our hearts and our bodies. Who decides? Our small decisions can move the mountain.
Staging is fairly simple yet I was impressed with the attention to detail. I was disappointed not to be able to hear and understand all of the lyrics in this musical. Those words matter as much as the theatre and the guitars and keyboards had been turned up to meet the volume of the drums and it all resulted in something too loud for the space, drowning out the clarity of the vocals. Some terrific lines made it through; there’s genius in the libretto, but not all of it could be properly received by the audience. That counted for a lot in a show that deserves a better sound balance.
The Reincarnation of Trim Tab Jim poses important questions, realises its aims well in a tightly constructed musical. Jim himself is believable, a teacher, a human with super-human ideals. He wants the world to be a better place and we have life (lives?) on earth to effect that. I feel that the show is on a journey of development. It will benefit from some attention to the musical direction and the balance and interplay between film, music and drama. There’s a lot of film, some stunning, nuanced and powerfully integrated with song, poetry, monologue and dialogue. In other places it feels a little too detached and occasionally unneeded.
Yet at the heart of Trim Tab Jim is a production destined for greatness, with a lion’s heart at its core. The rock music rocks, the performers hold the space extremely well and with a little turn of the rudder here and there, a highly recommended show could be transformed into an outstanding one. As it stands, it is still an unmissable fringe show.