Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Through slapstick, songs, soft shoe shuffle and film extracts, this new one-man musical follows the triumphs and trials of Buster Keaton, with a particular focus on the turbulent years in which he made his iconic silent movies.
On entering the venue some simple, but effective, techniques encourage the audience to believe that we are the staff at MGM studios in 1928, waiting to welcome Keaton. A piano plays softly in the background. Keaton appears and explains that, by way of introduction, he will present a precis of his life and career. For the next 50 minutes we are there at MGM with him, listening attentively as he recounts his experiences.
In this one-man musical, performed and written by James Dangerfield, it is undoubtedly the music and lyrics that are the highlight of the show. The clever wordplay and catchy melodies (one of which has stayed with me all day!) would probably make a very enjoyable stand-alone soundtrack for a Keaton fan, without the benefit of any additional performance elements! The songs effectively tell the story – each one helping to progress the performance and always flowing seamlessly from the script. Dangerfield’s singing was clear and tuneful, accompanied by backing tracks. One couldn’t help but wonder how the atmosphere may have been enhanced, had there been a live piano accompanying both vocals and film clips!
In today’s performance the vocal score was augmented by Dangerfield’s portrayal of Keaton, interspersed with original film footage. The latter was incorporated as an integral part of the performance, to a very effective degree. Each segment left us wanting more, feeling excited about when the next snippet would be introduced. Keaton’s talent was conveyed very clearly from these elements of film, delighting the many fans in the audience (who were often laughing in anticipation of what they knew was about to happen!). The timing of the film elements and stage work was very impressively executed, as at some points this required precise co-ordination.
From the moment Dangerfield entered the stage his admiration for Keaton shone through, feeling almost palpable at times. His diction, vocals and movement were clearly well rehearsed and his eye contact with the audience was striking. I am unsure if it was an intentional, stylistic approach to have very deliberate, structured actions and movement throughout the piece. This approach seemed to hinder the ability for natural emotion to be communicated effectively in some of the scenes. There were a couple of songs, in particular, which had significant potential to be extremely moving. The difficulties in developing an emotional depth may have hampered the audience’s ability to believe that it was Keaton himself telling the story (a challenge possibly increased by the fact we were intermittently watching real Keaton footage). Even without a powerful emotional dimension, however, the audience warmed to Keaton’s character as the show progressed.
The pace of the show was generally varied to good effect, though may have dipped a little too far towards the mid-point. This was aggravated by the fact that, on a few occasions, silent visual performance was taking place at floor level, which was not within the sight lines for many. One section, involving a drawing activity, felt particularly protracted and disengaging for those who could not see what was happening. Greater consideration of sight lines for the audience in this venue may help to inform the staging and overcome this difficulty.
Props, lighting and sound-effects were very effectively used, with film also helping to orientate the audience onto the appropriate time-line as scenes changed. The majority of the set was constructed in black, white and muted tones which enhanced the feel of the setting. In this context, the introduction of very bright colours for a particular element of the performance seemed to conflict with the environment. However, I wonder if there may be a deeper “Keaton–related” reason for this that went over my head.
The show mainly focussed on Keaton’s life between 1917 (meeting Arbuckle) and 1928 (moving to MGM), during which time his major films were completed. Keaton’s childhood was referenced in songs early in the show and his later life summarised at the close. The ambitious technique used to close the show fitted with the setting, though the time taken to complete some of the elements left today’s audience a little confused about the point at which the show had ended. The structure of the last few minutes of the performance may benefit from greater clarity.
This creative, entertaining show will delight Buster Keaton fans and provide an enjoyable experience for all. After watching the well-chosen film footage, I suspect that newcomers to Keaton’s work may well be inspired to find out more.