Saturday, July 05, 2014

Keep A Little Marc In Your Heart....

Last week, with a somewhat trepidatious heart, it was time to commune again with the children of the revolution at the Wimbledon Theatre for a jukebox musical.  The things I get talked into for the promise of a programme and a tub in the interval.

So to deal with the three points that were lying heavily on my soul: in 2007 I went amongst the rabid fans of Marc Bolan at the Shepherds Bush Empire and realised that the children of the revolution had turned loud, obnoxious and beery.  Sateen never looks good stretched across a potback.

My last visit to the Wimbledon Theatre was an infuriating affair due to the inability of the staff to run a theatre correctly - never have I felt so unwanted in a palace of entertainment.

Jukebox musicals - the last refuge of the musical producer scoundrel.  For every good one, there are three that clutter up theatres and make it *that* bit harder for original musicals to get backing.  They also breed performers who know only one style of shrill, gormless playing.

But guess what?  The Bolanites we had in that night were good-humoured souls who just wanted to commune again with Their Marc, the Wimbledon staff were courteous and attendant - and while it certainly had some seriously dodgy spells - on the whole I enjoyed 20th CENTURY BOY.  So go know.  Actually, within five minutes of the show starting, I had a smile on my face and - yes - a bit of a tear in my eye.

I had wondered how the writer Peter Rowe would approach the life of Marc Bolan, the charismatic and unstoppable force of '70s Glam: linear or something a bit more imaginative?  Well a bit of both really.  The musical starts as it means to go on - the stage awash with digital projections - with the 1977 headlines of his death, killed when girlfriend Gloria Jones lost control of their car and it ploughed into a tree.  It transpires we are watching what Marc's unhappy son Rolan (Luke Bailey) is watching - he was only two when Marc died - and he is stopped by Gloria (Donna Hines) who tells him he will never understand his father looking there, he will only find him in his music.  This dimly-lit scene suddenly explodes into colour and light as the backdrop splits to reveal T.Rex seen in all their Glam glory and Marc (Warren Sollars) launches into "Metal Guru".

It was then that I realised that I was watching a piece of my own history - I was in school when Marc changed from being a 'serious' musician to being an out-and-out Pop Star and, conversely, my brother thought he had sold out just as I thought he was finally becoming relevant!  "Metal Guru" was the first T.Rex single I bought so to hear the song in this context was strangely moving.

The plot continues with Rolan making his first visit to London, trying to connect with Marc's presence which leads him to meeting his grandmother Phyllis (Sue Jenkins) and uncle Harry (Peter Manchester) and through this device, we revisit Marc's story: from being a Mod 'face' in the 1960s to his first musical success with the folk rock of Tyrannosaurus Rex as well as his marriage to June Child (Lucy Sinclair) who managed his career skillfully until he became a genuine superstar.  But Marc's hubris leads him to spiral into a life of drink and drugs and his marriage ends messily when he starts a relationship with singer/songwriter Gloria Jones.

I mentioned to Owen how odd it is that even when you know the era as you lived through it how, in retrospect, that it can be neatly summed up as a clichéd Boy Gets Fame, Boy Loses Fame story but I guess that's why there are clichés.  There are only seven plots allegedly.  Sadly there is no room in a jukebox musical for depth... characterisations are kept thin to get more songs in.  So Phyllis is lovable old Jewish gran who cannot forgive Gloria, Rolan is searching for the father he never had, Gloria can't forgive herself for the accident, June is posh totty, Marc is searching for something but ultimately unknowable, etc.  It does allude to the nastier side of him, especially when he was in decline but not too any great extent to upset the T.Rex fans.

As I said, the production certainly utilises it's digital projections well and keep the stage images interesting whereas the set wasn't particularly interesting.  A typical touring production design: movable panels for a curious backdrop of an anonymous room with static-snowstorms on various television, monitors etc.  The costumes for Marc were well-researched, I certainly knew a few of the designs from famous photo-shoots or tv appearances, but otherwise the designer made the usual, dumb mistake of thinking that everyone lived through the 1970s dressed like a member of the Young Generation dancing troupe.  I am presuming they are using the costumes from a previous tour but there really is no reason for Marc's outfits to be so badly fitted!

I was left wondering had Rolan or Gloria seen the show.  I presume not but it must be a strange experience to know that somewhere someone is playing you, using someone else's words to explain how you feel about the father you never knew or the partner you lost.  A few years ago I was at the Retro Bar for their weekly pop quiz which that week was dedicated to Marc and who should turn up but Rolan!  

It was quite bizarre but we had a nice chat with him after the quiz and he was very charming and personable.  I asked him how his mum was as, being a big Motown fan, I thought Gloria was one of their most under-rated songwriters (she wrote for Gladys Knight, The Supremes and the Jackson 5 among others with her writing partner Pam Sawyer) and he looked really happy that I asked and he said she was very well and had been teaching in Sierra Leone.  I remember asking him if the whole quiz thing seemed a bit strange to him but he said not at all, he actually thought it was fantastic!

Luke Bailey was impressive, if a trifle one-note, as Rolan while Donna Hines although singing up a storm as Grace seemed to be playing her as Tina Turner - as I recall Gloria actually has quite a mellow way of speaking, certainly not as strident as Turner.

On the vocal front, Warren Sollars also seems to have been shown clips from the MARC tv series by his vocal coach so he spoke in a fey, wispy voice - yes Marc had a light voice but there are innumerable clips on YouTube where he is speaking with a harder edge to his voice which one can assume was his normal speaking tone.  Apart from that I thought he gave a good performance - it must be difficult to play Marc Bolan when practically everyone who comes to the show will know his vocals and mannerisms backwards.

It's also at times a stretch to fit the T.Rex songs into the show structure - yes they can be used for onstage performance scenes - but how to use them in the accepted sense of a musical: to heighten an emotional moment while keeping the story moving.  How do you do that with "Telegram Sam" or "Chrome Sitar"?  Bolan was such an idiosyncratic lyricist that it's must have been a struggle and for the emotional high spot of the show - Bolan singing to baby Rolan - they are left with "To Know Him Is To Love Him", a 1958 song that Bolan covered with Gloria Jones.

But I liked the use of "Cosmic Dancer" as an imagined duet between Marc and Rolan, "Teenage Dream" was sung by Gloria, Rolan, June and Tony Visconti charting Bolan's decline - it reminded me more than a touch of "Out Of Fashion" from TABOO - and "Dandy In The Underworld" was reserved for the climax of the show although again it's lyrical content hardly makes it a natural tearjerker.

Of course there was the obligatory megamix at the end but I happily clapped along and belted out Marc's Glam hits... it was his time, it was mine too.

Could it take a West End run?  Possibly, with a bit more money thrown at it and a major recast of the woeful Lucy Sinclair who played June Child with a voice like nails down a blackboard.  If musical obits like THE BODYGUARD and WE WILL ROCK YOU can find an audience, surely 20th CENTURY BOY stands a chance.

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