Friday, October 21, 2016

'From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads' at the Waterloo East Theatre, 20th October 2016

In From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, anxiety-ridden anorexic 18 year old Martin embarks upon an psychogeographical David Bowie odyssey. He visits the Stockwell house where Bowie (then David Jones) was born and grew up in, his primary school, the ratty Croydon pub where Ziggy Stardust faced his first crowd and the recording studios where he cut Five Years, Starman and Life on Mars - from which Adrian Berry's play derives its title.

I can sympathise with Martin, having undergone my own miniature musical pilgrimages. I've balefully stared at the gloomily semi-detached 384 Kings Road, Stretford, imagining the bedroom inside where a teenage Morrissey miserably moped. I've searched out the "unfit for human habitation" flat where Sid and Johnny squatted. And yes, I've run past Bowie's 40 Stansfield Road, of which the owner miserably opines: "It’s not the same as having a big star like Amy Winehouse's home, they’re much more sensational."

They're just bricks and mortar, yet you feel the tug of history, imagining your icons ignorant of their glittering futures casually opening the garden gate, opening the door and strolling inside. Perhaps a smidge of whatever propelled their geniuses remains deep in the cracked mortar? Perhaps some psychic reverberation exists in the air, creating a connection between us? Perhaps, essentially, I can now properly understand them?

Martin (Alex Walton) is sent on his quest by a long absent father. Having abandoned the family when his son was two, he left behind a bitterly alcoholic wife, a fucked up kid and a couple of boxes of Bowie memorabilia. Martin seizes upon this connection to his Dad, becoming a die-hard fan and apparently devoting his life to trying to understand the constantly shifting, difficult to pin down zen of Bowie. Getting in the way are his crippling anxiety and social awkwardness, an eating disorder and his general twitchy oddness.

Events are kicked off by his receipt of a letter from his Dad, which was instructed to be delivered on his 18th birthday. The letter features a cryptic map of London and a command to follow the breadcrumbs to an unknown destination. These prove to be Bowie landmarks, each stop along the way bringing Martin closer to his father and closer to Bowie. Eventually the two absent fathers intertwine, leading Martin to a kind of godlike BowieDad (excellently voiced by comedian Rob Newman).

It's not easy watching someone fall apart this spectacularly, Walton pulling out all the stops in portraying Martin's collapse. Wrapped in skinny jeans and an oversize hoody, he physically straddles man and boy, all spidery limbs, golf ball eyes and a brow furrowed before its time. He looks painfully, obviously vulnerable, as if a strong wind could blow up and spirit him up into the sky. Martin is such a pitiable figure that we don't quite identify with him, but ache for him to undergo a Bowie-style reinvention.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads was apparently written in about 1999 and performed to some acclaim at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe. Some updating has taken place (the story is now set in 2013 alongside the release of The Next Day), but the biggest unspoken factor in this production is Bowie's death earlier this year. It layers on further tragedy, Rob Newman's voiceover feel unnervingly like Bowie is speaking to Martin from beyond the grave.

With a soundtrack of Bowie hits ranging from the famous to the relatively obscure (I was particularly pleased to hear Weeping Wall, and the amazing vocals only version of Five Years), the show feels like it's functioning as a kind of collective mourning. It's difficult to think of another musician whose death was still this keenly felt ten months on, but the flowers and candles at his mural in Brixton continue to be refreshed. This adds an edge to Martin's sadness - perhaps in earlier performances his Dad might be merely absent, yet now we're all but certain he's dead.

Perhaps it's cheating for a play's emotional resonance to primarily come from external events rather than what's in the script and performances. Even so, I can't deny the swell of sadness I felt in the closing scenes, a procession of Bowie memories flitting behind my eyes. 

Now, I didn't love From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads - perhaps a bit of fat could be trimmed from opening act and maaaaaaaybe it'd benefit from a firmer narrative structure (I was particularly fascinated by the all-too-brief therapy sessions) - but its come along at the right time. Reactions may vary - if you couldn't give a toss about Bowie you're unlikely to get much out of this. On the other hand, if you do, it could hit you like a juggernaut. Either way it's a fine meditation on a great man - on top of being a generally decent bit of one-man theatre.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is at the Waterloo East Theatre until 6th November, then on tour. Tickets here.


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