Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Writer Peter Arnott and Director Cora Bisset bring Janis Joplin back to life in this pacy performance of the doomed singer. Supported by a tight and punchy four piece band, chanteuse Angela Darcy portrays the heady, unpredictable, yet talented vocalist that Joplin was, weaving her narrative story around some of Joplin’s greatest musical moments. The cast of six offer a raw and dramatic look at the woman once voted “ugliest man on campus”, whilst treating the audience to a set of fierce grooves.
Janis Joplin grew up in Texas at a time when segregation was being challenged and it is her outspoken innocence that opens her eyes to the hypocrisy that she is surrounded by. Initially unaware of her own musical ability, she is intrigued by recordings from black artists such as Bessie Smith, listened to on radio stations that her peers daren’t tune in to. In the early 1960’s, her arrival in San Francisco, “just to get away from Texas” coincides with the rise recreationally of hallucinogenic drugs, the sure recipe for disaster that we now recognise as her addictive personality.
Aware that she needed help, she did return to her family for a short while, but by now her musical career had begun to take shape and it’s not long before she is back on the performance circuit with all that it entails. Joplin herself lacked confidence and she adopts the persona of an alter ego to perform on stage. It’s this character, “Pearl”, with a blood red boa tied in her dirty blonde hair, who she blames for her excessive lifestyle, but who also enables her to reach those musical highs that the singer was celebrated for. Dipping in and out of the singer’s story, Darcy’s Texan drawl is accompanied with the screams and moans that Joplin mastered.
Her band follows her every undulation, pelvic thrust and mic stand jerk, resulting in a feverish performance of sensual pulsing rock. The singer’s dialogue is peppered liberally with her guttural laugh as she swears to her hearts delight before breaking into a heartfelt and no holds barred rendition of such favourites as, “Tell Mama”, or “Another Little Piece of my Heart”. Behind every successful singer there is an even tighter band, and this production really works because of the sympathetic musical accompaniment, from the all-male line up, to the singers fully committed delivery. Drummer James Grant keeps a tight percussive conversation with Chris Freer’s driving bass and Andy Barbour’s piano, whilst lead guitarist, (and Musical Director), Harry Ward weaves melodically around Darcy’s vocals.
Darcy has a range that allows her to roar on the big choruses yet treat the more sympathetic phrases with an ethereal delicacy assisted ably by the guitarist and bassist who provide rootsy backing vocals. They’ve mastered the anticipatory beginning to songs which leaves you holding your breath for what feels like an eternity waiting for that groove to kick in.
Their version of “Summertime” reaches a rhapsodic psychedelic high before it falls away into fragile pieces. This show is a treat for anyone who wants to know more about the singer and to both hear and see how she performed. The cast capture her free spirit, with Ward’s accompanying monologues adding the subtle touch of a disgruntled band member telling you his point of view. When the musical icon comes to a sticky end, the band is often forgotten, despite having tolerated the lead singer’s erratic lifestyle up to her tragic demise. He bemoans that her last contact was with a hotel clerk before she disappears for that final heroin fix that kills her.
It’s a series of highs and lows that the audience are truly enjoying, but the hushed silence in the room as the final moments are depicted are bewitching. The low and subtle lighting is smeared with rising dry ice that seems symbolic of the singer drifting away. There are also plenty of genuine recordings of Janis Joplin to include, from her druggy babbling to an appreciative audience to her painfully bitter sweet elongated codas. Can you blame me for loving it, what’s not to dig?