Brighton Fringe 2022
In this 1970s sequel of his 2020 Spirit of Woodstock, Jonathan Brown directs lights, soundscapes and technically operates too. One performance but consult v for upcoming dates in July.
If Jonathan Brown’s masterly one-man-invocation Spirit of Woodstock (premiered in 2020) hit the sweet spot of the sixties, there’s something darker in his Something Underground production of Spirit of Woodstock 2 – The Sequel. The Empires strike back?
Brown directs himself, manages all the split-second sound and music cues, and on a broken ankle gyrates gracefully as he plucks a new hat or prop from a bare couple of boxes and a chair between, a sound system located on a laptop close by.
Oh and if you’re in the front or second row, don’t worry, you’ll be yanked out. Sometimes it’s charming as one is asked to be nine-year-old Neil on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks singing the Skye Boat Song alongside everyone else. There’s Tony Blackburn for a nanosecond introducing ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ late on. Then there’s – yes Jim’ll Fix It with Savile fixing it for little Debbie to meet that great guy Gary Glitter. Small wonder the government warning of strange men advert come straight after. A light contrast to the first Government ad: what to do in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Not (as Victoria Wood has it) buy Hellman’s Mayonnaise.
Thinking of futuristic silver things not missiles, whatever you do, don’t laugh at Tomorrow’s World. A compact disc, with lasers? Never catch on!
Apart from an interval, don’t worry, there’s advertising breaks too. Brown could have made a killing (well, he does later on). He could even get you to buy Green Shield stamps as they go out of style. Too bad he has such integrity. Is that why this virtuoso writer, director and performer isn’t already a national icon, as one theatre director said, seeing this?
You might think from a summary this is a two-hours-twenty history lesson. It is, but both hilarious and chilling by turns. Brown’s extraordinary fluency and quick-change of voices body language and peaked caps entertains first and foremost, but informs last of all. Brown’s first big story inhabits the memory of Nobel-bound Alexander Solzhenitsyn, recalling gulag days, what’s in his soup. It’s a mini monodrama; not the only one.
Brown’s atomising of the Troubles – from Iain Paisley’s ‘no surrender’ (the audience shout it back derisively) to a boxer left for dead by the British army, shot through the lungs and recalling it as a bullet-drunk, not punch-drunk invalid – is mesmerising. Most harrowing of all is the priest who finds himself complicit with terrorist bombings and exiled to die slowly in Malin, northermost tip of Northern Ireland. Brown’s slow demolition of a soul is almost soul-destroying.
Yes the 1970s, the decade that taste forgot but also – alas – the most formative. Brown’s acutely political ear and phenomenal impersonation threads us through it chronologically. But to cite his list, there’s a gallimaufry of characters, events – and jingles from Brentford Nylons the Sun and R Whites Lemonade that Brown croons to us. And a sound system bringing us more, like Smash amidst a hit parade of pop songs. Or as Brown puts it (I’ve expanded it a bit):
‘From Space Invaders to Star Wars, glam rock to punk (Isle of Wight to Sex Pistols), flares to safety pins, Heath and Wilson to Thatcher, Nixon, Apollo 13 (first story up: ‘Houston we have a problem’) to Skylab and The Shuttle, the massacre of ten of the Israeli Olympics team of 1972 told by an irate survivor, citing total incompetence as TV shows the terrorists how the police are scaling walls; the surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973, OPEC (‘you supported Israel, we win’) to queues at petrol stations. The Apartheid murder of Steve Biko (a peaked cap chill and heavily accented complicity in murder).
‘From Bloody Sunday to Power Sharing, power cuts to three-day weeks, the Miners’ strike, disco… to the winter of discontent. From main frames to Apples (hello Steve Jobs), post strikes to email (‘why would anyone want to send a message from one computer to another?’).
‘Old money to decimal (‘that’s a tiny coin… I’ll never understand it’), past VAT, into the EU and up the butter and beef mountains and wine lakes. (Brown’s disgruntled anti EEC growlers are as viscerally presient as they’re funny).
‘From The Cold War (computer glitch says 2500 Soviet missiles are headed our way, what to do? Let the wife sleep on; then there’s Afghanistan…) to the Cod Wars (another of Brown’s peaked caps) to The Godfather and more…. with music, soundscapes, platform shoes to remind you of good times, and bad.’
Brown mightn’t touch on all the underlying economics – a construction of neo-liberalism and the dominance of the IMF might work as a Ted Talk, if not on a chilly night – but he manages an astonishing amount of detail: including inside stories on the opening of the Yom Kippur War, the way Afghanistan was invaded, Soviets killing their original communist placemen; Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Ba’arth party leaders prior to invading Iran; the meddling of superpowers in fundamentalism from Iran (the Shah’s wife) to Afghanistan at the end of the decade, as the old order crumbles under oil shocks.
Most, it’s what resonates now. Roe vs Wade with placards and cheers from the crowd as Brown impersonates a pro-choice feminist, terrifying reminder of how progressive values have to be fought for all the time; and how the 1970s both signalled advances and religious retreats.
Brown’s outstanding on all counts. You don’t notice he’s broken his ankle, except to sympathise. Brown even announces a late July show in Lewes where he’ll scale climbing frames to shout the two parts of Woodstock from the top of a church to make up for it. He really doesn’t need to. There’s no greater writer/performer working in Brighton, or Sussex, and Spirit of Woodstock Parts I and 2 is his most dazzling show to date.