JUKE box musicals, featuring the hits of a single artist or band, can either be loosely biographical, as with Jersey Boys, or completely fictitious, with the songs interwoven into the narrative, as with Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You. 20th Century Boy is one of the former, using a mildly contrived plot where Rolan Bolan, son of Glam-Rocker Marc, returns to England to find out more about his famous father.
We are treated to almost perfect live reproductions of most of Bolan’s hits, from his early days with the fully named Tyrannosurus Rex, much supported by John Peel and hippies, to his huge success with the shortened T-Rex and the heavy rock and roll that took over the music charts in the early 1970s. The singing, by Warren Sollars, as Bolan, is completely authentic, and his performances on various stages, from Top of the Pops to a failing American tour, are astounding, as is his off-stage life, moving from his meeting and marriage to June Child, one time secretary to members of Pink Floyd, to his affair with soul singer Gloria Jones, who bore his child, and was at the wheel of the car in which he died in 1977, just a month after Elvis Presley, the hero he always wanted to be compared with, and to be bigger than.
The three women in Bolan’s life; wife, mistress and mother, are played sensitively by Lucy Sinclair, Donna Hines and Sue Jenkins respectively, and each of these actors also has a chance or two to sing as well, showing their versatility, and what great voices they have.
Other cast members play various band members, musicians, producers, press, and hangers-on, and at time sing and dance as a full ensemble, giving the show the feel of a traditional musical, rather than just a series of well-known songs. Two fine examples of this are Teenage Dream, given a choral arrangement with beautiful and accurate harmonies, and the closing number, the highly relevant Dandy in the Underworld, sung by various solo characters before developing into a rousing choral number to close the show, before an encore of half a dozen Bolan hits drags the whole audience to its feet, singing and clapping along.
The staging is simple, allowing for a full rock band to be in place behind some sliding flats, and some well-selected projection around the proscenium arch and on the backdrop, allowing news headlines, ecstatic audiences, and a shadow of the tree which is now Bolan’s shrine, to take over the stage as and when needed.
Stood humbly at the back of the rock band, all of whom, apart from him, play actual characters, is the musical director, and it is from his guitar that we hear the most famous bits of Marc Bolan’s music, the riffs and solos that truly make the music unique and long lasting, and apart from a tiny bit of guitar duelling during the encore he takes no applause himself, so I would like to raise a glass to the wonderful talent that was Marc Bolan, and to the equally talented MD Ryan Alex Farmery for making his music truly come alive on stage.
This is a great night out if you like rock music, and particularly if you like it live and loud. Catch it at Bristol this week and on tour until July.
Photo Robert Day