Writer: Collette Cooper
Directors: Collette Cooper and Niall Phillips
Tomorrow May Be My Last is simply electrifying. Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Collette Cooper doesn’t just play Janis Joplin – she becomes her in front of our eyes. Cooper captures Joplin’s phenomenal performances – her fabulously raspy voice and her extraordinary raw power. It’s an evening to remember.
The Old Red Lion’s tiny theatre is transformed into a low-lit sixties’ pad. US flags are draped over old sofas and floor cushions. One table is covered in bottles of Southern Comfort, Joplin’s favourite drink and also the sponsor of the show ; the other holds assorted drug paraphernalia. We seem to have wandered into a chilled moment of a party. A couple of long-haired guitar-players quietly strum, occasionally breaking the mellow mood by addressing audience members. A back projection shows footage of music festivals. There are blurry black and white scenes from Woodstock, CND marches, protestors and cops.
Joplin’s arrival is announced. The band bursts into life – there’s a powerful drummer with them. They play their intro while the crowd roar ‘Jan-IS, Jan-IS!’. Then silence. They try again. One the third attempt, Joplin herself erupts onto the stage and grabs the microphone and we are instantly in her spell. She’s a hell-raiser, stomping, flicking her long, unruly hair, her unique voice going from an unrestrained roar to an intimate whisper. Her movements (compellingly choreographed by Dame Arlene Phillips) are angry and powerfully primal.
Then she’s alone in her pad, still wired from performing. She’s talking to herself – or rather, she’s addressing her old friend, the bottle of Southern Comfort. And here we have the other fascinating side of the show. This is not one of those self-consciously stagey monologues. This is Janis Joplin herself, her thoughts ranging freely, her moods mercurial. She shifts from the exhilaration to dark brooding in an instant. She cackles with mischievous delight, high on the love the audience gives her, then is plunged into misery as troubled thoughts from her adolescence intrude. It’s a brilliant script, brilliant because it feels unscripted.
She talks of the overwhelming influence of Bessie Smith whose singing, she says, ‘made me feel beautiful’. She cannot leave behind the dark shadow cast by her teenage experiences of being an outsider, being told she’s fat and ugly. The cruel words echo in the show’s excellent sound design. She spits out her rejection of the conservative values of her hometown, Port Arthur, Texas: getting married and – snarl – baking bread. We learn bits of her life in fits and starts. But we know how it will end, and this show about exuberant, liberated life is rightly shadowed by Joplin’s death by heroin-overdose in 1970 at the age of 27.
Then she’s pulling off one set of clothes – spot-on costume design by Amanda Newall – and unselfconsciously yanking on a new pair of velveteen bell-bottoms, or a puff-sleeved top. When she struggles into a little crocheted waistcoat, she’s good to go.
Accompanied by brilliant musicians, Jan Simpson, Jack Parry and Dan Malek, Cooper gives us some of Joplin’s greatest songs including Piece of My Heart, Ball and Chain and Down on Me. To watch Cooper perform is to really feel Joplin’s sensational power. Her engagement with the audience is mesmerising. She ranges the stage, looking each of us in the eye, spontaneously stopping and talking to individuals, cackling all the while. We feel seen and loved and love her in return. When she asks us if we liked a song, we roar our approval and by the end of the show we are on our feet, belting out the chorus of Me and Bobby McGee.
Runs until 11 June 2022