David Bowie bestrides late 20th Century pop culture like few others. He left a mark with his music, fashion, films, acting, stage production and artistic alchemy. On the one hand he has left much to work with. On the other, there is so much material, it is difficult to know where to start to do him justice. There were many David Bowies.
Writer and Director Adrian Berry, Artistic Director of North London’s cultural hub Jackson’s Lane, walks a tightrope with this production. The seats, most of them full on a well-attended opening night, are full of Bowie fans, not Berry fans. Yet this play is not about Bowie. It follows the footsteps of a young Bowie obsessive as he makes his way through the streets of London. It is about an anorexic with mental health problems. It is about obsessive fandom. Bowie is the vehicle and hook, not a protagonist. It is a one man show, which means it is cheap to tour whilst simultaneously affording maximum artistic freedom for the solitary performer to shift through characters, time, and place, with the minimum of fuss. Conceived of, and written, before Bowie’s death. Berry had been in touch by e mail with Bowie himself, and in person, with members of his entourage, gaining approval for the project, and a license to use his music on stage. (Maybe the cost of the license was why it had to be a one man show!)
Curiously, Berry wrote the play while staying on the east coast of America. The story is one of the sole stage character, Martin, set in Bowie’s London, seen through the eyes of a teenage boy from the Midlands. It is semi-autobiographical of Berry, rather than attempting to tell Bowie’s story. I came as a Bowie fan, but not as a Bowie obsessive. My first introduction to the man was as a fourteen year old, hearing the ethereal wailing of Mick Ronson’s guitar break on “Moonage Daydream” drifting from the next door neighbour’s house. I had to knock on the door to find out whose record it was. Forty- five years later the spell has still not been broken. I own every record he ever released and saw his live show four times. In the 1970’s in particular, Bowie’s prodigious output of work was never quite what you expected. Berry is faithful to that precept.
“From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” is not a Bowie musical. Nor is it a eulogy for a musical icon. Instead, it focuses on loss and isolation with Martin drawn to the other worldly qualities of Bowie . Estranged from his father, Martin trawls through Bowie’s London haunts and links, searching for Bowie, his father, and himself. The mental illness which ended in the suicide of Bowie’s half Brother Terry hovers, a sceptre over proceedings.
Alex Walton is alone on the stage, as he feels alone in life, playing nine separate characters over eighty- five minutes. It is an energetic, frenetic performance, on a minimalist stage of scaffolding and polythene sheets obscuring two iconic facsimile Bowie costumes. A rare moment of comedy arrives when a bench with skeleton frame is upended to create the telephone box of Ziggy Stardust album cover fame. Bowie cognoscenti will spot several nods to Bowie lyrics within the script, literary buffs will spot a bit of Philip Larkin too. The play eschews conventional linear narrative in favour of character development, and does it well.
In pre-recorded voice over, Rob Newman voices David Bowie quotes satisfyingly enough. Bowie aficionados will appreciate the vocal only excerpt from “Five Years”. But with twenty- five studio albums alone to choose from, and numerous other recordings, the soundtrack will inevitably divide opinion. “Time” is a strong opener, the music box rendition of “Life on Mars” at the end, off-beat and endearing. All musical interludes are excerpts, none played in full. Martin performs a deliberately off key karaoke performance of “ Starman” at the Greyhound PH in Fulham Palace Road, home to an early “Ziggy” show.. A fairly obvious comic device, I did feel it was a missed opportunity. In a play about estrangement and alienation, if the song had been played faithfully, with Martin singing along in tune, the audience would have done too, and provided a moment for all to connect.
Bowie himself toyed with musical theatre. Time moved on too quickly for “Ziggy Stardust” to be realised on theatrical stage, the “1984 Floor Show” was thwarted by George Orwell’s estate, “Lazarus” hints at what might have been. With “From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads”, Berry has produced innovative, intense and compelling theatre. It will delight and frustrate in equal measure. Bowie would have liked that.
Runs till Tuesday 16th at Derby, then continues on a thirty date national tour ending in London.