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20th Century Boy

by on 10 May 2018

A Toy Guitar

20th Century Boy

by John Maher

Greatbrit Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 6th May, then on tour until 30th June

A review by Matthew Grierson

There’s about an hour’s delay to 20th Century Boy going up this evening, which is put down to technical difficulties with the projector, so this means it opens with the late Marc Bolan in more ways than one. The conceit is that the T.Rex frontman’s life is flashing before his eyes after his fatal car crash on Barnes Common … and the show is certainly pretty flashy.

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In the role of Marc Bolan, né Feld, George Maguire is a cheeky, endearing figure, perhaps more blokey than the androgynous glam rocker, but a charismatic enough performer to carry the show. His Bolan is enthusiastic as much as egotistical, amiable as much as ambitious. If his story is sometimes self-serving it’s because it’s from his point of view, and it’s the story he’s telling to himself to enable his success. So this is not only a greatest hits musical, it’s also a greatest hits version of the life, like the snapshots taken by Bolan Senior of his son posing with a toy guitar at the beginning of the show. A boy’s-own dream of growing up to become a gender-bending rock ’n’ roll pixie.

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Another early scene exemplifies this tendency: in his mother’s kitchen, a pre-bouffant Bolan regales his mother Phyllis (Amy Rhiannon Worth, giving excellent value) with his adventures on tour, reeling off his band’s exploits at an increasingly improbable speed. This is not simply getting around the need to show the band themselves onstage – the small but perfectly formed ensemble already have enough costume changes as it is – it also dramatises Bolan’s irrepressible desire to tell stories about himself, building these up into the myth he then inhabits. As such, 20th Century Boy is not so much a biopic on the stage as it is sketches between the songs on a 70s TV show like Tiswas, where the repeated references to speeding cars and other in-jokes would have been delivered with a campy look to camera.

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This set-up means the narrative is both as identifiable and as slight as Bolan’s boas – one of which appropriately starts shedding feathers when he is at his most dissolute – making for as loose, and indeed louche, a tragedy as you might imagine. Feld becomes Bolan and swiftly realises all his adolescent ambitions in Act I, marrying June Child (Sarah Moss, providing a stable, human counterpoint to Bolan’s fantasies), before embarking on a world tour with the band. In Act II, first the world then his producer, bandmates and wife weary of him, while other performers, notably David Bowie, command more of the public attention. He is rescued from his booze ’n’ drugs hell by the love of Gloria Jones (Ellena Vincent, with a wig that matches Maguire’s and a voice that outdoes his), who announces she is pregnant with his child. All is suddenly sunshine and smiles again until the fateful drive in the Mini.

Moving at a necessarily fatal speed, the storytelling tends to depend on overly expository dialogue, which grated with me at first – “Oh look, it’s Helen Shapiro!” “Hi there, I’m Tony Visconti.” But once I got used it, its corniness felt of a piece with Bolan’s own mischievous enthusiasm. More effective is when these transitions are enacted by the staging: a scene beginning in the lounge of Bolan’s prospective manager ends in the recording studio, while Bolan’s first date with June jumps straight from Tube to bedroom, with the sheets then whipped away to reveal them glad in their wedding gear. The story has been deftly abbreviated in much the same way as the band’s own name was.

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The set is constantly in motion around the performers, always part of the dance. The bare walls are where, I presume, the missing video would have been projected, but given the colour and vibrancy of the cast I can’t see how much this imagery would have added. Even the scene changes are executed pretty swiftly, because the emphasis is, after all, on getting to the next song. Like the sets, each number is made effectively into part of the action, dramatising emotional beats or a particular gig or studio session from Bolan’s career. This culminates in the first act with the set-piece recording of “Ride a White Swan”, where the song is gradually assembled by producer Visconti (endearingly portrayed by Derek Hagen). As the riff emerges, there is a frisson of excitement in the audience: T. Rex have arrived! In the second act, the performance of the show’s title song is then intercut with interviews where Bolan is pressed on whether he is a sell-out, Maguire switching effortlessly between music and dialogue, and subsequently, in a broken mirror image of the “Swan” session, the drunken singer fires Visconti and his band.

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Despite this tragic arc, the production remains very up-tempo, very fun, because that is what Bolan’s music was. Not for him the languid chameleonics of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke; just keep the hits rolling. So even though it’s clear that Bolan has wronged his mother and June by taking up with Gloria, the love of each woman is given equal weight in a number they sing from opposite corners of the stage, representing opposite sides of the world. I wonder whether the production lets the actual Bolan off the hook by making his stage portrayal so sympathetic. Then again, this doesn’t feel like the place for real-life concerns.

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One gripe I do have, and again it’s probably more of a gripe with the form of the greatest hits musical than this show particularly, is that silence could be used to more telling effect than it is here. When Bolan lies wrecked after the departure of June, his wife launches us into song again, and after his death there is likewise no respite but instead an improbably rousing funeral song. With the sound of T. Rex being so glam and growly, we might be more affected by the poignant moments if they were allowed to be poignant. That said, as Bolan and Gloria leave on their final journey together the opening chords of the title song play in, to excellent effect, as portents of doom.

The darkness never remains dark for all that long in 20th Century Boy, though, and even as Bolan leaves the stage he is a dandy in the underworld, walking away through a door into spotlight and dry ice. But a voiceover reassures us that it doesn’t end this way: the energetic cast and redoubtable musicians launch into a medley of the hits, summoning the audience on to their feet to join in the dancing (yes, even yours truly).

It’s a pity that the late start means some are already heading for the exits – don’t speed home, now.

Matthew Grierson
May 2018

Photography by Judy Totton



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