“Barber’s delivery is as fantastic as the words are fantastical.”
You’re not long into “Musik” before you realise that this isn’t really a musical at all. Although it features six original songs penned by the Pet Shop Boys, the focus is unquestionably on Jonathan Harvey’s wonderfully outrageous script and the sheer personality that bursts forth from Frances Barber’s magnificent performance.
Barber plays Billie Trix, a retired rock icon and actress in this sequel to ‘Closer To Heaven’ which premiered nearly twenty years ago just around the corner at the Arts Theatre to somewhat mixed reviews. Trix was a minor character but even then, Barber made her the star of the production, so it seems inevitable that she be given her own show. And as she strides through the auditorium up to the stage, she makes no bones about this being her show. Barber owns the character outright, and to some extent the script, allowing herself some ad hoc ad libs. Madonna’s cancelled gig at the Palladium is the first target of Billie Trix’s acerbic banter.
It’s a kind of cradle to grave narration. Although, despite her sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll life of excess, Trix is determined to keep her unavoidable destination at arm’s length. She was born a ‘mongrel’, her own mother’s one regret, but rises above this with the narcissist’s belief against all odds that she is a ‘gift to the world’. We never know for sure how much she believes her own fantasy, but we are spellbound by her anecdotal wizardry. The ushers will surely have their work cut out after the show, sweeping up the countless names she has dropped. She’s been there, done that and has the emotional scars to prove it. Andy Warhol stole her Campbells’ Soup Tins idea. Madonna stole her image; even Trump stole her virginity (though he was then a skinny lad called Otto). We want to believe it all as she takes us on her journey from post-war Berlin to the rock arenas of the world, via Vietnam and a Soho phone box. She has shared moments with them all – the Beatles, Lou Reid, Nico, Dalí, Damien Hirst, Eminem, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frank Zappa…
Trix was at the forefront of each revolution in pop culture. Brecht’s original ‘Mother Courage’, a star of the New York art-house film scene, the pioneer of Disco; the darling of the Surrealists and the scourge of the Young British Artists. Trix looks back on her fantastical life with bitterness but in Barber’s hands the only real rage we witness is that of laughter. Barber’s delivery is as fantastic as the words are fantastical. The further Billie Trix falls into obscurity the higher Frances Barber rises. You can see the sparks fly as she hones Harvey’s already razor-sharp script.
If anything, the music softens the punch. Trix showers us with a bewildering cascade of anecdotes and one-liners, which make the musical interludes feel a bit like a commercial break. The synth-pop sound does little to reference the text, although the lyrics do shine through thanks to Barber’s crackling voice. Unlike Trix, Barber knows her limitations and it is this loveable self-deprecation that allows us to love such an unloveable, foul-mouthed character.
“Someone make it stop!” Trix shouts out at one point. A vain exclamation as Barber is unstoppable. Trix may be washed up, but Barber is on the crest of a wave with this role.
“fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence”
“The Sunset Limited”, by the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, was originally published as ‘A Novel in Dramatic Form’. What distinguishes this from a play is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the award-winning writer’s unique style infuses each word and phrase with customary flamboyant bleakness that holds our attention to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Devoid of any real theme or plot, it is fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence. In the past, McCarthy has admitted that he respects only authors who “deal with issues of life and death”. Indeed, his nihilistic, almost existential approach can be off-putting on the surface, but his command of language and colloquial style effortlessly draw us into this short, one act play. And once we are in, what keeps us there – in this case – are the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton who play the two nameless characters.
Referred to only by the colour of their skin, Beadle is labelled ‘Black’, while Britton is ‘White’. All the action (or inaction) takes place in Black’s sparse, run-down tenement building. Black is an ex-convict while White is a professor. Sounds predictable and insensitively black and white, but any potential stereotyping is rapidly subverted and quashed. Black is cheerful; an optimist and evangelical Christian while White is an irredeemably miserable atheist. It becomes clear in the opening scene that Black has saved White from throwing himself under a train. (The title of the play derives from the name of the passenger train – The Sunset Limited – that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles). Black has taken White back to his apartment and taken it upon himself to save White from any further attempts at suicide.
Beadle and Britton captivate throughout as we watch them steer their way through the ensuing debate. Nothing happens, beyond drinking coffee, or Black serving up a dish of reheated Creole cuisine from his fridge. But we are shaken to the core by their two opposing worlds, and our ideas are shattered by the crashing waves of their argument. Just as we think we are safely buoyed up by Black’s rolling tide of positivity, we are dangerously dragged back by the undertow of White’s nihilism. It is a raging debate, but comical too. “I long for the darkness” utters White, “If I thought that in death, I would meet the people I knew in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate nightmare”. Britton beautifully seizes on the savagery of this pessimism but with a deadpan glee that brings out the humour. Beadle’s bible bashing counter arguments come with as many absurd and self-deprecating twists that remind us that we are being entertained rather than preached at.
The two actors’ natural performances transform McCarthy’s writing into a kind of poetry. Director Terry Johnson pitches them together in a slow dance that keeps the rhythm flowing and echoing in our heads long after we leave the theatre. The questions it has kicked up refuse to settle. After all – there are no real answers for them to settle on. But we, the audience, have the easier task: we can safely discuss these questions of life and death in the bar after the show, leaving the characters on the stage to make the life or death decisions.
The outlook is pitch-black and harsh, and seemingly a dead end, but nowhere else is a journey to nowhere such a pleasure.