20TH CENTURY BOY AT THE BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE
Theatre Run: Monday 28 April - Saturday 03 May 2014
Performance Reviewed: Monday 28 April 2014
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
In decidedly meta fashion, the life and times of T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan were of such superstardom, hedonism and excess that by today’s standards it all seems ironically quite atypical and overly familiar. Talented, aspiring musician from humble beginnings does good, becomes rock ‘n’ roll wunderkind, devolves into heady life of drinks, drugs and dubious extra-marital relationships before ultimately leading to an untimely, some-would-argue tragic death. It has all been played out on film, television and, indeed, on-stage, to such an extent that 20th Century Boy, be it based on true events as it may be, won’t be bowling anyone over with its originality. And even within the confines of actuality, being thankfully a biographical piece rather than an original story inspired by his life, it is at times difficult to locate any palpable drama, and Bolan’s own murkier periods seem notably underplayed and fleeting, as though nobody involved wanted to tread too damagingly on the man’s memory and legacy.
So it plays it all a bit safe and similar, but at least along the way 20th Century Boy can boast a tracklist of still-excellent numbers predominantly from the Bolan and T-Rex discography. ‘I Love to Boogie’, ‘Children of the Revolution’, 'Dandy in the Underworld', ‘Get It On’ and so on are all in there, irrepressible and infectious as ever, and given vibrant, enthused arrangements courtesy of a mostly-solid cast. Leading man Warren Sollars channels Bolan impressively both vocally and in manner, though it is undoubtedly a performance that lives and breathes during the musical set pieces, with Sollars a little more limited and less engaging in the quieter moments of the show.
Such moments offer a little more of 20th Century Boy’s substance and depth though over similar shows such as Let It Be though, which, for all their charm and quality, can oft play out as prolonged tribute acts. Here, there is a welcome narrative framing the more typical flashbacks and career trajectory through Bolan’s life in the form of his surviving family still coming to terms with his death and the remaining tensions between them. Again, it isn’t anything devastatingly new or original, but is leant extra poignancy by dint of it being a true story. Bolan’s son Rolan (we’re told to blame David Bowie for the rhyming coupling) travels to the UK from his home in LA with Bolan’s former lover, soul singer Gloria Jones, to learn more about his fathers life and death. He touches base with Bolan’s mother Phyllis and brother Harry and gradually the longstanding dischord between Phyllis and Gloria is given greater insight and context as the events of Bolan’s life play out on stage.
20th Century Boy is by no means a particularly short or succinct show, and given the aforementioned familiarity of chunks of the story it tells, it’s a shame the creatives involved couldn’t find a means of channeling more of Bolan’s own quirky style and invention into the overall approach here and smooth out some of the stop-start feel that begins to plague the overly long first Act in particular. Diego Pitarch and Will Duke’s combined staging and set design is suitably showy and versatile, and there are plenty of genuinely rousing and suitably rock ‘n’ roll moments that elicited audible cheers and audience involvement. Likewise, some of the supporting cast impress giving it their all - Lucy Sinclair is particularly characterful and impressive as Bolan’s first wife and manager June Child, Donna Hines sizzles with versatility as Gloria across the ages, Katia Sartini is a real presence even with two separate characters and relatively little dialogue, whilst stage and screen veteran Sue Jenkins is particularly authentic and moving as Phyllis, lending the show a great deal of its heart and conviction, even against Luke Bailey's flatter, somewhat fumbling performance as Rolan.
It almost goes without saying that T-Rex and Bolan fans will likely be in their element with 20th Century Boy, though in truth even those too young to remember him will find a generally upbeat, fairly extravagant and suitably exciting slice of jukebox musical theatre to enjoy, buoyed with terrific, timeless pop and rock classics. In some ways it is something of a further irony and shame that Bolan’s obsession with re-writing the rules and striving for the highest level of greatness is re-imagined in such a formulaic, standardised production, but at least in playing it so safe 20th Century Boy may lack his whimsy and innovation, but nonetheless re-ignites his memory and music in a manner that should be enjoyable and accessible to almost all.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 Stars)
+ High-energy, audio-visual treat
+ Bolan's back-catalogue of hits remain as infectious and brilliant as ever
+ Feels a little more fleshed out than similar biographical musicals
+ Sollars makes a solid Bolan, Jenkins lends real heart
+ Receptive, engaged audience seemed to be having a blast
- Although based on real life, is still a thoroughly familiar story that has been seen and done time and time again
- Act I in particular could easily shed 15-20 minutes of excess
- A real pity Bolan's approach could not have been applied to craft a more distinctive and unique show
- One or two notable weak links in the cast
20TH CENTURY BOY is running at the BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE from Monday 28 April to Saturday 03 May 2014.
Alternatively telephone the New Alexandra Theatre’s booking line direct on 0844 871 3011.
Press tickets for this performance of 20th Century Boy were provided courtesy of the New Alexandra Theatre directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.