REVIEW: JANIS JOPLIN: FULL TILT (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Janis Joplin is a name I am familiar with, primarily for her being a member of the tragic ’27 Club’, secondly for that catchy acapella rejection of consumerism that is ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?’. Joplin was a Psychedelic rock icon of the 1970s, a true showwoman, a tour de force of song, dance and musicianship and she still remains one of the biggest selling artists of the USA today.

Admittedly I wasn’t familiar with much of her canon, but was won over by the visceral quality and musical interpretation of her style as portrayed by all on the stage under the musical direction of Harry Ward.
The show, created by Peter Arnott and Cora Bissett, takes the form of part gig, part theatrical performance and tells the story of Janis’ early life to untimely death in 1970. From misunderstood and forward thinking teen in 1950s, to the lonely and pained rock goddess of the 1960s. Throughout this brief but oh so bright life her search it seems is for somebody to love, love her and ultimately for her to love herself. Her death by overdose is inevitable, but subtly written and and very well played.

Angie Darcy fizzes as the tourtured queen of blues, completely and utterly inhabiting Joplin as she moved seamlessly from monologue to song in the first act giving us glimpses of both Joplins philosophy and history. The text is surprisingly educational, but never preaches and it was fascinating to hear about the social and political issues of the time interwoven with Joplins own personal pain.
It was in the second act however that things really come to life as we saw more scenes of interaction between Joplin and the band. Particularly effective was the scene set in a hotel lobby where Joplin, (unsuccessfully) tries to ‘pick up’ the young Vietnam Vet (played by Ken Birk) working on the front desk, it very neatly and succinctly spoke volumes about her politics, insecurities and state of mind. I would have welcomed more scenes like this.

Special mention has to go to sound designer Gary Boyle who expertly took us from full on gig to intimate dressing room spaces with ease. Never overpowering us or leaving us wanting, this theatrical element is often not as well done in larger theatres.

You could accuse ‘Full Tilt’ of being just another ‘jukebox musical’, however Joplin herself was was an expert at interpreting other artists work and what is presented here doesn’t feel like the usual rehashing of songs, it has far more to tell us. I took my father, a teenager himself in the 1960s and he loved it, so much in fact he’s going to come back with friends. I myself have downloaded Joplin’s best selling album ‘Pearl’. There’s no denying she was an awesome talent and I feel glad that ‘Janis Joplin: Full Tilt’ allowed me to experience a little bit of her.

Reviewed by Byron Butler
Photo Robert Day

Janis Joplin: Full Tilt is playing until 5th March at Theatre Royal Stratford East