I may as well lay my cards on the table. I’m not part of what you’d call ‘the natural audience’ for the American recording artiste Janis Joplin. In fact, to be frank – and on the evidence of the music on offer in Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, the biographical play with music by Peter Arnott which opened this evening at The Theatre Royal Stratford East – hers is a genre of music I would gladly cross the road to avoid.
That being said, I actually quite liked Arnott’s take on this Texas rebel who made it big, though I do have a couple of reservations, more of which later.
The Joplin on offer here, however, is a vulnerable victim who eventually finds some sort of catharsis through her music. An outsider overweight at school, who simply doesn’t fit into the cheer-leading, wholesome, God-fearing community of Port-Arthur, Texas, into which she is born.
The veneer of glamour given to her through her music lends her an air of Bohemianism into which she throws herself wholeheartedly, enjoying multiple relationships with both men and women, and not so much dabbling as embracing alcohol and hard drugs, so much so that they were to be the cause of her death in 1970 aged just 27.
The fact that the Joplin of Arnott’s play is so immediately accessible, and even likable in a ‘I know she’d be a nightmare to be with’ sort of a way, is due entirely to the central performance by Angie Darcy who gives a performance of rare commitment, reprising a role she has twice wowed audiences with at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Moving between the set piece scenes and rock concert performed on stage with four piece backing band Darcy is fully and believably, ‘in the moment’ and the unpredictability of her action behind the microphone really does make for an arresting performance.
As I said though I have a couple of issues with Arnott’s play. The first is to do with structure. The first act is essentially a monologue with Joplin telling us her life story, interspersed with songs. The second opens with a scene played out with her band, and on a train whilst touring to Canada, and the interest level is immediately raised as we see how other people interact with her, and as we discover how she is viewed by her friends and fellow musicians, in the person of Harry Ward, a member of the backing band. There’s a truism in writing: show don’t tell, and I’m not clear why Arnott remembered it in the second half and not the first.
My second issue is one that to be fair is nothing to do with the writing and all to do with the music. Pop songs – or I guess in this case rock songs – don’t work at all well in a theatrical context. They were never intended to. As a consequence they more often than not have the effect of holding up the action. In a couple of places it is evident that the songs chosen have been placed with the intention of commenting on the scene immediately preceding them, however the nature of the music and inconsequentiality of the lyrics mean that they rarely, if ever, work as intended.
The backing band are good, cranking out a selection of Joplin’s ‘hits’ which feel more as though they’re in the show because the rights were available than that they were much of a milestone in her career. The only song I recognised was the Act One closer, and that was by George Gershwin.
All in all, I suspect that if you’re a fan of Joplin you’ll lap this up. If not, go for the central performance which is the main selling point of the show.