I could hear the harmonies long before I entered the auditorium. And as we stepped inside, we were greeted by a band of “Fallen Angels” – dressed in black, complete with half masks, singing Elvis Presley songs (significantly including “If I Can Dream”). Before long, all becomes clear.
The audience are introduced to “Trim Tab Jim” (played by James Mannion), given that nickname because of the way a miniature rudder can change the direction and destiny of a mighty boat. In a complicated, poetic speech, he tells us of the fateful night he was mugged, finding himself now in Death’s waiting room. Will he travel up the metaphorical escalator – or will he be heading down? Enter the Angel of Death (Penny Scott-Andrews), who has the power to decide Jim's fate, and demands he account for exactly what has justified his existence on earth.
Mannion plays his part with an unassuming, almost nonchalant attitude. He is probably the most understated rock singer I have ever seen, and it was a pleasant surprise when he began to sing, for he had the perfect voice for his role. Scott-Andrews captures the necessary superiority needed for her part and moves the action along nicely. The two together offer an interesting dynamic, holding the attention of the audience throughout.
The live band (Adam Onyett, Lars Schuy, Nev Brewin and Alex Lovell) skilfully create a superb atmosphere from start to finish, leaving us in no doubt of their musical talents. The songs were the stuff rock-opera is made of – loud and passionate – but my favourite was the slightly more mellow number sung in the Prelude. The harmonies between Mannion and Onyett were simply divine to listen to.
All the time these songs are being belted out, a massive screen behind the actors shows multi-media material, ranging from childhood images to Elvis singing in his 1967 revival (is he really dead or still alive?), and of course the iconic scene involving David Niven in “A Matter of Life or Death.” All of these added to the fascination of the piece for me.
But there were a couple of things that didn't quite work. On arrival we were asked to answer some questions about our own choices and causes in life; I won’t spoil the surprise of what happens to the answers, but I didn’t think it justified the hard thought I’d put in. Things got a little complicated and political towards the latter part of the production, for a few moments leaving me lost. And the slightly ambiguous ending felt unsatisfactory, especially considering the quality of the performance up to then.
But all the same, I loved the very idea of this piece. This was a slick performance with a great message: that “to live a life devoid of meaning” is actually a fate worse than death, and that we all need to be accountable for what we bring to the world. So if you’re interested in something a little different, and certainly if you’re a fan of rock opera, Trim Tab Jim is worth checking out. It’s a clever mouthpiece that gives even David Niven a run for his money.