A great title performance from Angie Darcy powers this enjoyable jukebox musical
It might sound callous, but there are obvious advantages to telling the life story of someone who died young. Gone is the usual problem of squeezing too much into too little a space. Thus runs Janis Joplin’s life: she was a shy, plain girl who grew up as a bullied outsider in small-town Texas. By the age of 14, she was seeking solace in beer. In 1965 she fled to San Francisco, and discovered counterculture, drugs and music. A few bands, records and years of fame later, she was dead from a heroin overdose.
Peter Arnott’s script reveals little more than this: he keeps the storytelling light in favour of letting Angie Darcy’s performance as Joplin do all the dramatic heavy lifting. This is a wise move. For about five seconds after Darcy’s walked on to the stage, you might question the casting of someone a few years beyond the ‘27 Club’. Then she opens her mouth. From the ‘fuck it, myaaan’-strewn monologues, to those rasping upper notes in the songs, the mimesis is uncanny. It emotionally gears us into what, ultimately, is a desperately sad story of someone brilliant and talented who was unable to outrun the traumas of early life.
Cora Bissett’s production has rolled into town having gathered a number of awards and accolades during its run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Its biggest problem is one common to jukebox musicals. During the songs, Darcy performs with all the wild abandon of Joplin. But we’re not in a sticky-floored dive in ’60s California; we’re in a theatre in east London. So it’s pretty frustrating to be stuck on a seat. Although, by the encore of ‘Piece of My Heart’, not many people’s bums were still on them.
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I saw the matinee today (20th February), and it featured the 'understudy' Hannah Jarrett-Scott (without any warning from the theatre I should add). However, she is some singer (although not really too like Janis Joplin), and she is worth the price of admission alone. In many ways, she deserved a better vehicle than this threadbare, two-dimensional tale of Joplin's life told through monologues to the audience (consisting of "hey man", "you got to get it while you can, man", etc., with many expletives thrown in), a couple of dialogues with the guitarist (an excellent Harry Ward), and one with the desk clerk of the hotel where she stayed. Not much is revealed other than the well-worn stuff about how her high school friends hated her, etc. It's not much of script, truth be told, and it was just an annoyance in between the excellent songs.
The research was a bit poor as well. The second half started with a scene from what was presumably 'Festival Express', with Joplin on a train with some musician (Jerry Garcia?). However, they were playing the Lowell George song 'Willin'', which was not recorded until 1972 (after Joplin's death). Great song, but what was it doing in a Joplin musical?
Good, solid entertainment, but if you want to know about Joplin, go and see 'Janis: Little Girl Blue'.