Tuesday, November 27, 2012

‘Last show… Tonight!’ at The Rosemary Branch, 26th November 2012

Disclaimer: I know the brother of the lead actor.

The best rock star is a dead rock star.  Plucked from the limelight in the full flush of their youth they’ll never age and are ripe for transformation into an eternal, hazy idealisation.  Death is an excellent way to sand the abrasive edges from somebody, never again will they embarrass themselves on chat shows or be papped puking into their hat outside Floridita nightclub. It’s an even more excellent way to make money once you’ve scoured the archives for their musical leftovers and repackaged them into some kind of quasi-album just in time for Christmas.

“Last show… Tonight!” is about one of these stars and shows us their long, slow slide into the grave.  Joe Brown (Barnaby Brookman) is the lead singer and guitarist of ‘The Brothers and Si Fletcher’.  He’s a walking ego, self obsessed, cruel and manipulative with the manic nature of a Rik Mayall character.  The cherry on top of this rancid cake is that he’s not even a particularly talented singer/songwriter.  With his keyboardist brother (Danny Wainwright) and long-suffering drummer Si, (Tom Foy) the band have put out one successful and popular album before collapsing from alcohol abuse and lack of ideas.  

The conceit of the show is that we’re the audience for Joe’s last concert.  This means there’s a lot of music here, most of it played straight as if we were actually at the gig.  Interspersed with the songs are bitchy interludes with the other band members, as well as flashbacks to key moments in Joe’s past that fill in the gaps of how he’s gotten to this point.

On paper Joe is an awful human being, and as the show relies on us sympathising with his plight he needs to be played just right.  Fortunately Brookman pitches his performance pretty finely across the gap between loveable and obnoxious.  Sure he’s loud, rude and self-centred, but we can see that he is basically a good person.  Joe is a character that knows how rock stars are supposed to act; he seems fully aware that he’s living up to a stereotype.  It’s this overlap between how he wants to act and how he’s expected to behave that gives the character pathos.  This makes the performance multi-layered but coherent, whether he’s talking to his terminally ill alcoholic dad, teasing his bandmates on stage or pleading to be let in from the cold he’s still recognisably the same guy, just with different parts of his personality highlighted. 

This exposes the masculine bravado of the rock star as a smokescreen for deeper and more serious problems.  One scene that ties all this together is an interview on some cheesy chat show.  The host is condescending and rude, privately gleeful he’s going to get some good footage.  Joe is a figure of fun to him, the boozed musician being prodded and teased like a toothless lion.  Joe is aware of this and initially plays up to the Oliver Reed-like role expected of him.  It's nice when the cruelty of the host is undercut quickly and efficiently by  Joe ‘admitting’ he’s an alcoholic.  Real life intrudes and suddenly the host isn’t finding the interview so much fun.  Now the shoe is on the other foot, Joe has transformed from jester to victim.

The fact that the character can consciously play with the way he’s perceived adds another layer of tragedy to him, a man aware he’s a figure of fun but unable to do anything about it or act any differently.  This debauched rock star persona allows him to function as an alcoholic without too many raised eyebrows.  We laugh when told of a time when Joe was supposed to be on stage in Glasgow and was found drunk in Belfast.  In most other professions this’d be faintly tragic and depressing, but for a rock star?  Hey, this is what he does right?

Joe is a genuinely interesting character, a worthy subject for drama.  Unfortunately we don’t get to know him quite as well as I’d like.  The play runs for about 90 minutes and a large part of that is made up of songs performed by Joe and his band.  The show establishes pretty early on that Joe isn’t a particularly talented writer.  He’s desperate to read out his poetry on stage, to the horror and embarrassment of his bandmates.  When he finally does, it’s awful adolescent teenage stuff.  His lyrics aren’t much better; we laugh at them because it’s funny that Joe takes them so seriously.  These songs get the biggest laughs of the show, yet while they're being performed the narrative and character development totally freezes.  

I initially figured that we'd learn about Joe through his lyrics and how he chooses to express himself, but there’s two problems with that.  The first is that the lyrics are a  bit bland, it’s difficult to recognise much of the blustering Joe we see between songs and therefore hard to get an idea what these lyrics might signify about his state of mind.  The second is technical: I was sitting in the front row and even with the performers directly in front of me it was very difficult to understand the lyrics as the loud drums drowned them out.  

The knock on effect of the songs occupying so much stage time is that every other character receives only cursory development.  The most egregious example is the character played by Charlotte Whittaker.  She’s Joe’s romantic interest and also pregnant with his child.  Learning more about her is an excellent way to try and work out what makes Joe tick and she pbviously represents a rich seam of drama to mine.  In the few, short scenes she gets Whittaker is great, she's definitely got the most compelling musical performance.  So it’s disappointing that for much of the play she’s relegated to the role of the roadie bringing the microphone on and off stage. 

Another problem with the amount of songs in the show is the popularity of Joe’s band.  We can glean from the dialogue that “The Brothers and Si Fletcher” are hugely successful.   The problem with this is that it just doesn’t correspond with what we see on stage; the band don’t look or sound successful in the slightest, behaving more like an average indie pub band.  This creates a bit of a disconnect between what we see and what we’re hearing; this is a play with a down-to-earth grubby aesthetic, with knackered old fridges, cheap beer and stained t-shirts.  None of this seems to square with even the remote sniff of success.

The basic concept of showing us a musician's last concert inevitably means there's going to be music played.  It's difficult to think of any worthwhile way around it. Even so, the characters here would have more space to breathe with maybe a few songs cut out, or some existing ones trimmed a bit.

Despite these reservations, by the time the play ends the audience has a good handle on the who and why of Joe Brown.  'Last show... Tonight!' succeeds in creating a complex tragicomic hero that we eventually find ourselves caring about.  This makes the final scenes unexpectedly touching, a good sign that the play has achieved its aims.  This is a fairly modest play that's conscious of its limits, but performancewise it doesn't put a foot wrong and nails the tone.  It's frequently very funny, and its running time flies by.  Good stuff.

'Last show... Tonight!' has its last show... tomorrow! (the 28th of November) at the Rosemary Branch Theatre Pub. 

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