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April 21, 2002
Screaming in the audience
Four years ago, when I was in London, I was reading Mojo and Q and listening to the radio. It was The Verve's moment in the sun. Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet and Lucky Man were all on high rotation, Urban Songs topped the album charts, and The Verve were playing a headlining tour around the U.K.
Imagine my surprise then to discover that The Verve were on tour at the exact time as ... The Nerve. Okay: I guessing that this is what they were called, but they were The Verve's patently unofficial tribute band. And they seemed to be following The Verve around the country, perhaps hoping that Richard Ashcroft and the boys would all fall ill and they'd get called up to fill in. So if you happened to be in Birmingham, you could go and see The Verve at the National Entertainment Centre, or, for a fraction of the cost, you could go and see The Nerve at some sleazy pub down the road.
What got me angry about this was the stunning lack of respect. Look, I'm no fan of The Doors, or Abba, or Pink Floyd, but I can understand why these acts have tribute bands. The originals are no longer operating, owing to the death of the lead singer, or the collapse of the band, or because of the insurmountable obstacle that is Roger Waters. This sort of tribute band meets a tangible need, to satisfy people's desire for nostalgia, for youth, for happier, simpler times.
Which fails to explain The Nerve. What on earth were these people thinking? They're out on the road providing people with nostalgic memories of when The Verve were riding high with Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet and Lucky Man. In other words, they're providing nostalgia for something that happened earlier on that day. And they were doing so with blithe cynicism. Can't afford to see the world's hottest band? Here, come and see us do virtually the same thing, but for a fraction of the cost and for absolutely none of the point.
Four years later, in two Australian theatres
Anyway. I was reminded of all this because tonight I saw two tribute shows to two famous comedians. Both were complete crap.
Play Wisty For Me was a tribute to Peter Cook, which also featured a lot of Dudley Moore. The actors playing these men were fine, I suppose, but the script was empty. The first scene was great: Pete and Dud come out on stage and shake hands, but Pete's so drunk he misses Dud altogether and ends up unconscious on the floor. Dud stands over him for a moment, and then says "you're drunk again. You've let me down again."
That was the first ten seconds, and nothing else in the next hour was as interesting. Bits and pieces of Cook's work had been cobbled together and were presented in random order. His offstage relationship with Moore went entirely unexplored, which created a vast, gaping hole in the show. If you didn't know who Peter Cook was, you'd come out of the show determined never to find out. Some countries have penalties for this kind of thing, and rightly so.
But even worse was Screaming In America, a play about the last six months of the life of Bill Hicks. "A play," mutters the actor playing Hicks, "only a play. My life doesn't even get a movie."
Bill Hicks' life story deserves a movie. And while we're waiting for that, this play does nothing to fill the gap. If anything, it makes the gap wider. Hicks had an amazing life, and occasionally the play hints at that. Could just be me, but that seems like an enormous waste of opportunity.
At the start of the play we see a young Australian girl writing a letter to Bill. She feels she can articulate her thoughts to him, because she thinks he'll be able to understand her. I don't have a problem with that. As a dramatic device, it's fine. But here's the rub: we also get to see the girl's father. Quite a lot of the girl's father. Frankly, way too much of the girl's father. And he's always complaining: about his health, about how difficult his life is, about ... the thermostat not working.
As time slowed ticked by I asked myself what this had to do with Bill Hicks. And the answer came in a flash: nothing. Nothing at all. I sat in that audience, wanting and willing to see what happened when Bill Hicks discovered he had pancreatic cancer and not long to live. Instead I got ten horrendous minutes of a girl's father complaining about a completely irrelevant thermostat. Wow. Oh, man. How "arty." How "challenging." How "edgy," how "out there."
No, wait. How pointless. How unnecessary. How boring.
Another enormously inadequate moment was towards the end, when Bill utters his last words. The actor did this sitting on the floor a few feet away from the front row. This meant that only the people in the first two rows could see what he was doing. I wasn't sitting in the first two rows, so I couldn't see the play's dramatic highpoint. Uh, great. Stagecraft, guys, stagecraft. Make sure the audience can see and hear everything. And while we're here, give them a reason to care about what's happening on the stage. So having an irrelevant character endlessly whinging may not be useful. Just a thought.
I spoke to the show's producer beforehand, and she said that the play was really about how people were using the net to mythologise Hicks. "They're ignoring his message," she said, "and focussing on the drug taking, the cowboy, the legend."
Just for the record, I think that's complete crap. The net also makes available the genuine article: a huge number of mp3s of Hicks in action. And if I have a choice between reading what's being written about him on message boards, or listening to the man himself, I'm going to take the second option. And I'm going to take it every single time. It's just what I would personally choose to do. This is one decision that I find absurdly easy, and, as a result, I question its value as a starting point for a play.
Anyway. I had a crappy night. I have the distinct feeling that the box office made a horrible mistake, and I somehow ended up in a sleazy, smoky pub watching the comic equivalent of The Nerve.
"Christianity's such a weird religion. The image you're brought up with is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love." - Bill HicksPosted by Sean Hegarty at 03:19 AM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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