Writer: Peter Rowe
Music &Lyrics: Marc Bolan
Director and Choreographer: Gary Lloyd
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
20th Century Boy tells the story of Marc Bolan through the eyes of Rolan Bolan: the son who never knew him. As the show opens, we see Rolan in Los Angeles obsessing over footage and reports of Bolan’s premature death in 1977. His mother and the driver of the mini on that night, Gloria Jones, has only just come to terms with his death and Rolan knows little or nothing of his heritage. He sets out to England to find his roots, seeking out his family in London. Through meetings with his grandmother, uncle and one of T. Rex’s roadies, he gradually learns of Bolan’s life and death.
Born Mark Feld in 1947, Bolan is shown as a shallow, narcissistic young man. He wants to stand out from the crowd and quickly becomes a sharp dressing mod – looking and moving like a camp Mick Jagger. After a brief sojourn as a backing singer with Helen Shapiro (in the short lived Susie and the Hoops), he toys with the musical ideas and poetry of Bob Dylan and a number of names before settling on Marc Bolan and setting up the original small, psychedelic, folksy line up of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Supported by John Peel, who admires his other worldly, mythical lyrics, he is spotted by producer Tony Visconti who helps him change image as they release Ride A White Swan to commercial success. On the way, he marries June Child.
T. Rex tour America, but never really make it big over there. Bolan’s drug fuelled decline is told as he has an affair with the soulful Gloria Jones, divorces Child and has his son, Rolan. They return to England, and his star seems to be ascending again when his life is cut short in the infamous car crash.
Bolan is flamboyantly played by George Maguire. His complex story is told in episodic form. Bolan is painted as an unlovely and unloveable character, selfish and self-centred, using friends and casting them aside when they are no longer of any use to him. The superb set, by Diego Pitarch, is most impressive, adding to the atmosphere. It is monochromatic, consisting of TV screens and speakers, and is used imaginatively for projections that set the scene well, for example when Rolan is obsessing over his father’s death, or the band play massive concerts. It slides apart to allow for the full stage to be used, for example, when T. Rex are performing. Indeed, the high energy singing and dancing by the musically talented cast was loved by the audience, even if the ill-fitting wigs worn by the band and their pouting strutting put one more in mind of caricatures, reminding me, at least, of Neil Innes’ The Rutles.
The supporting cast of Lucy Sinclair (June Child), Craig Storrod (Rolan) and Donna Hines (Gloria Jones) work well, all performing with sincerity. Light relief is brought in Patricia Vella’s rendition of his mother, Phyllis Feld. A gentile married to a Jew, she nevertheless acts out the Jewish momma persona very well.
The songs, known and loved so much by the (sadly small) audience mainly of ladies “of a certain age” are expertly played with volume and aplomb. However, they are mainly punctuation in Bolan’s story, identifying a timeline rather than carrying the story forward. The episodic nature of the narrative makes for a flat performance when music is not playing, and Bolan is painted so unattractively that one does not fully engage with the story and the tragic end is unmoving.
For fans of Bolan and T. Rex, this is a great evening full of nostalgia that had the audience rocking and dancing in the aisles, especially during the extensive mashup after the cast take their bows; as a piece of serious theatre looking at Bolan’s life and times, however, it falls short.
Runs until 29 September
Picture: Robert Day