“the staged narrative builds to nowhere—when McNamara exits the stage for a second time, it is difficult to tell the play has concluded”
In an inauspicious opening moment, Robert McNamara enters the stage with a cane. With each step, he smacks the cane on the ground in front of him and yanks both feet forward—a cheap Chaplin imitation and a frankly offensive attempt to play a physical disability for laughs. Report to an Academy, Scena Theatre’s one-man adaptation of a Kafka story of the same name (set to endure a long run at the Old Red Lion), fails to improve upon this moment. It smacks of an ill-considered vanity project throughout.
The play remains true to its source material in a literal sense, lifting most of the text and narrative from the Kafka story verbatim. An ape named Red Peter, played by McNamara, details his capture, his traumatic transfer to Germany, and the process by which he learned to perform human behaviour. Perhaps the short story, which is intentionally somewhat anticlimactic, could have used more intervention in order for it to be properly adapted for the stage. Instead adaptor/director Gabrielle Jakobi adopts a rigid approach, leaning into the anticlimax. As it stands, the staged narrative builds to nowhere—when McNamara exits the stage for a second time, it is difficult to tell the play has concluded. The runtime, a scant forty minutes, is the play’s only relief.
McNamara’s physical and vocal mannerisms feel at once incessant and scattershot, caricaturish and unclear. His garish limp is inconsistent—at times he waves his cane wildly, ditching the physicality entirely. And though he gesticulates with the cane, the prop never transforms, remaining an aimless extremity. He often seems to interpret randomly selected words literally, either through gesture or intonation, which neither elucidates nor amuses. Perhaps this choice is intended to portray the process of Red Peter’s acquisition of language, but one has to squint and contort to see a directorial justification. More likely, the choice is folded into McNamara’s lazy decision to “play madness”, shouting singular words at random and making faces throughout his performance.
One particular sound cue is repeated throughout the production—a short, sombre, semi-orchestral excerpt that coincides with Red Peter’s initial captivity on a ship. Its subsequent repetitions arrive without much context, and the sound becomes a low-effort shorthand to portray the character’s sadness.
The source material itself, which allegorically deals with themes of colonization and assimilation, seems to be lost on Jakobi and McNamara, as evidenced by the painfully rudderless performance and unthinking programme notes. It is difficult to understand why the play was staged at all.
“Cooper embodies Joplin, strips her bare and dresses her up again in her own commanding and charismatic personality”
There’s a three-piece band jamming’ the blues, wearing shades and bandanas; stars and stripes are draped over chairs; a battered sofa; crumpled dreams bathed in tie-dye and the glow of lava lamps. Hard liquor and disembodied voices transporting us back to the ‘Summer of Love’.
That’s just the pre-show.
“Ladies and gentlemen – Janis Joplin!”. The band strikes up. The band breaks off. “Ladies and gentlemen – Janis Joplin!”. The band strikes up. The band comes to another resigned stop. Third time lucky. Joplin appears. The worse for wear, but totally fired up. And she’s off.
Did I just refer to Janis Joplin? I meant Collette Cooper. It’s difficult to separate the two. The mannerisms are spot on, thoroughly researched and executed. The drunken cackle, the Texan drawl, and the expletives. The physicality is striking, and Cooper’s voice has the ravaged quality Joplin possessed, soaked in the same spirit. The essence is undeniable and uncanny. Joplin courses through Cooper’s veins, striking right to her fierce heart. This is a stunning performance from start to finish.
Set in a festival, and backstage in her dressing room, in the late ‘60s, “Tomorrow May Be My Last” is a musical, anecdotal and a devastatingly emotional journey through the life and career of Janis Joplin. In between the songs, Cooper crawls into Janis Joplin’s skin and addresses the audience by way of talking, not so much to herself, but to her beloved bottle of Southern Comfort. Intimate and husky, she sears our hearts with self-deprecation, self-analysis, drunken logic, and raw revelations. And song.
Early on in life, Joplin gave herself two choices; either fit in or “become a fucking Rock Star”. She burnt bright, burnt fast, and at twenty-seven years old, her flame had burnt its last. Thankfully, Joplin never fitted in. But nor did she escape her childhood demons, the bullying that informed her body image. And she could never shake off the cloak of loneliness that forever weighed her down. “A Woman Left Lonely” is delivered by Cooper with gut-wrenching rawness and honesty.
The show features some of Joplin’s best-loved songs, placing them in glorious context by Cooper’s reminiscences. Launching into “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, she flawlessly depicts the chasm that lies between the person and the personality that is seen on the global stage. Like many of the numbers, it is preceded by a perfect evocation of stage fright. We can taste the vulnerability, such is Cooper’s mesmerising performance. Backstage the loneliness throbs to the dying backbeat.
On stage she knew no limits. “Ball and Chain” was a landmark song in Joplin’s career, and a defining point in the show. Cooper commands her audience, ignoring the fact we may be sitting above an Islington pub. Instead, we are at the Monterey Festival, we are witnessing the birth of the ‘Summer of Love’.
“I don’t write songs, I make them up” Cooper tells us, paraphrasing Joplin while seamlessly adding one of her own compositions (co-written with Musical Director Mike Hanson). “Tomorrow May Be My Last” could be plucked from Janis’ own repertoire; it epitomises the mix of hope, idealism and tragedy that followed Joplin throughout her fleeting life. Throughout the evening, Cooper captures the essence, explores the danger, and amazingly unearths deep grooves of humour too.
With Jan Simpson on drums, Jack Parry on guitar and Dan Malek on bass, the effect is complete. Through the music Cooper not only comes to life, but she brings Joplin back to life. And sends her off again with a glittering finale. Joplin’s wild heartbeat finally comes to rest as the belt tightens around her arm, and the final drop of heroin chokes her veins. Almost before we can register the sadness and brutal waste of a life cut short, Cooper turns it back into a celebration of that extraordinary life. “Take another little piece of my heart” she sings. She puts her heart into this show, then hands it over to us. And we gladly take more than just a little.
Cooper embodies Joplin, strips her bare and dresses her up again in her own commanding and charismatic personality. Intimate and intense, we see the minutiae and the global side by side. We are forewarned that the show is “proper Rock and Roll loud”. As befitting the genre, Cooper comes back for an encore of “Me and Bobby McGee: “Feeling good was good enough for me…”. Well, there’s an understatement. The feel-good factor is off the scale.