Mrs E, by her own admission, is something of an obsessive, particularly where music is concerned. When we first met, she was well into her Talking Heads phase, and, this being 1987, was suitably impressed by my life-size ‘True Stories’ poster that my friend Kevin B had kindly liberated for me from HMV. From there she went to an unparalleled devotion to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, and from there onto what I consider to be a slightly unhealthy obsession with Stuart Murdoch and the twee/tweed Belle & Sebastian.
But before any of that, and weaving a course in amongst it, there was Bowie. Always Bowie, and everything he ever did, with the possible exception of Tin Machine, to which she gave a sensibly wide berth. Before we met, she’d made a pilgrimage to Schöneberg in Berlin, where he’d stayed when he was recording Low, Heroes and Lodger, crossing Checkpoint Charlie to get there. Rather disappointingly, she reported it as reminding her very much of Catford.
When Bowie died, around this time last year, she was understandably devastated. Honestly, when I shuffle off this mortal c., I’d be happy with half the amount of tears and hand-wringing that defined Emu Towers in the weeks after he died. In that time, the stereo pumped out a fairly rigid playlist that was basically the Blackstar album, with anything else interrupted by ‘I’m not really in the mood for this’ or ‘This is nonsense’.
There were a few crumbs of comfort. Listening to Bowie, Bowie, Bowie wasn’t actually that much of a hardship, even though it was pretty much every day of 2016. And Christmas present buying had never been so easy.
Present #1 – ‘The Complete David Bowie” – a completely brilliant book by Nicholas Pegg that charts Bowie’s every song, recording session, gig and very possibly each evening meal from 1958 to 2016.
Present #2 – Two tickets to see ‘Lazarus’, in London’s glittering West End (cf a temporary theatre outside King’s Cross station). If you’re not familiar with Lazarus, it’s a stage show that sort of completes Bowie’s creative career, insofar as it was the very last thing that he worked on – and he got to see it too, in production off Broadway in his last public appearance, a month before he died. It’s the continuation of the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, the anti-hero alien from ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ – Bowie’s best (and some would say only decent) film appearance. Because it’s Bowie, it borders into performance art, and because it’s Bowie, there are reinterpretations of his songs, and some new stuff. And (bonus), it stars Michael C Hall, star of the wonderful Dexter series, who is the subject of a minor crush from Mrs E.
Partly as a result of #1 and #2, Mrs E was the happiest of bunnies all over Christmas, and much of our relaxation time in the evenings since has been spent preparing the ground for present #2, listening to the cast recording, tutting quietly over #1 (which she’s reading like a novel, rather than an encyclopaedia), and watching back to back episodes of Dexter. The book runs to 794 pages, and there are eight seasons of Dexter, so this is a pretty big undertaking, for anyone but the most hardened of Bowie fans. And her husband.
When I bought the tickets, it was already a sell-out, but I hunted around and got, at no small expense, two tickets (seats 17 & 18) in row Z, about two thirds of the way back from the stage. When she’d calmed down from opening the tickets, Mrs E did further research on the theatre layout, pronounced the tickets ‘excellent’ but then went onto Amazon and bought a pair of military-grade binoculars, ‘just to be on the safe side’.
The great day came, and we mooched around London, with Mrs E getting steadily more and more excited, and got to the theatre an hour and a quarter before show time. Because you never know when they might call an emergency tube strike, after all.
A cheeky snifter before the show, and we took our places, looking down onto the stage, which already had Michael C Hall on it, laying on his back, playing dead before the first scene.
“Excellent”, pronounced Mrs E, adjusting her binoculars, and checking MCH out for freckles.
The stage was set up with the band set back and up, with a big screen in the centre of the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it for your edification:
With about ten minutes to show time, Seat W 17 was occupied by a large bloke wearing a parka coat with the hood up. Eventually the hood came down, but left a bit of a static halo around his head.
Before I’d adjusted my neck to compensate for the next two hours, the occupant of Seat X 18 arrived. To my surprise, he was sporting a magnificent Afro cut, the sort of thing that you might have seen on Jermaine Jackson, around 1978. Unfortunately there was no equivalent to the ‘removing the parka hood’ option for X 18, but with a readjustment of the neck, I could still just about see Michael C Hall’s feet.
A real bonus, however, was that seats Y 17 and 18, immediately in front me, were empty, and, as the houselights went down, I happily remembered the ticket instructions about no latecomers being admitted.
Unfortunately, someone in the theatre hadn’t read their own rules, because, just as MCH’s feet start moving out of view, some hushed excuses were whispered, and I was presented with the backs of what appears to be two Canadian lumberjacks, just in from felling redwoods, or working out at the gym, or possibly back from the steroid shop. I’m generalising terribly, but these guys were huge, with bull necks, checked shirts and hipster beards, so big that they could barely sit down without being on each other’s laps. As a result, my view suddenly became really quite limited. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it:
Unfortunately, my view stayed pretty much like that for the rest of the show, so I can report very little about MCH’s acting skills, particularly as an awful lot of the play seemed to involve lying down on the stage. There were a few exceptions. At one point, a load of colourful clothes are thrown into the air, and they sailed into view for me just above the first Canadian prop forward’s buzz cut. I felt a bit like a midget watching the hats go into the air on VE Day.
And during ‘Absolute Beginners’, MCH manages to hold his negligee-clad fellow singer up, like a gymnast, flat against the big screen, legs and arms spread out like a star. This was delightfully framed by two bushy beards, but slightly spoiled by the singer’s open mouth and posture looking a bit too much like an inflatable sex toy, which I’m sure wasn’t the look they were going for.
By far the best part of the show however, was in ‘All the Young Dudes’, in which I managed to get an almost unimpeded view of the stage for over a minute and a half. ‘All The Young Dudes’ obviously has a place deep in the heart of your average Shoreditch/Canadian gym-bunny/lumberjack hipster type, as it was the cue for the occupants of Y 17 and 18 to engage in some really enthusiastic necking. No apologies for that rather dated phrase, which you might have last seen on a swimming pool poster, prohibiting necking, petting, smoking and bombing, because Y 17 & 18 were, delightfully for all parties in row Z, neck to neck, kissing and nibbling all through the second and third verse. (Incidentally, I’m going to form a company called Necking, Petting, Smoking and Bombing. It’s going to replace Sue, Grabbit and Run as my ideal Solicitor’s firm. Any lawyers wanting to join my startup, form an orderly queue.)
Anyway, at about the time in the song that Ian Hunter would have cried “I Wanna Hear Ya”, they separated necks, resumed their positions, and, I’m embarrassed to say, both heard me loudly sigh with disappointment.
So, all in all, I may be the wrong person to review this show. There was plenty of reinterpretation being flung about, as you’d expect from anything that Bowie had a hand in, and they stayed more or less true to the lyrics of the songs, which, because no-one really understands them, didn’t really help with the overall narrative.
But the musicianship was great, and a few moments (Life on Mars, being sung by the astonishing Sophie Anne Caruso; Valentine’s Day, sung by Michael Esper, and MCH’s Absolute Beginners for example), were sublime.
And Mrs E wouldn’t have missed it for the world. She’s an addict, after all, and she needed to know that she’d seen it. And she had the distinct advantage of sitting behind a very small and very old man wearing an anorak and a flat cap. (Him, not her, you understand. She’d taken her anorak off by then, tee hee). And she really enjoyed the whole thing, which kind of made her Christmas present worthwhile.
I asked her about what she thought of Michael C Hall on the way home.
“He must have got really tired”, she said, “he was on stage for pretty much the whole show”.
“Was he?” I asked.