For a sadly all too brief moment back in the early 70s Marc Bolan and T. Rex were frankly ruddy huge with nine top 3 singles and three top five albums in the space of just a couple of years. Fame’s a fickle business though and Bolan’s flame flickered a little as glam rock faded from favour (boy that’s a lot of ‘f’s), but he seemed to be staging something of a comeback (amazingly he toured with The Damned of all people in ‘76) when he (spoiler alert) was tragically killed in a car crash just a few weeks short of his 30th birthday.
Staged by Gary Lloyd (one of the brains behind Thriller Live) this musical, first aired back in 2011, looks at Bolan’s rise and fall through the eyes of his son Rolan, flashing back from the early 90s to key points in Marc’s life. It’s an interesting approach, marking (or Marc-ing even) it out as a something a little different from the ‘jukebox musical’ template that’s so popular right now and creating the opportunity for Bolan and son to duet together, something that would clearly have been impossible in reality (short of a handy De Lorean or Tardis that is). Of course Bolan’s heyday was the early 70s so perhaps understandably a few liberties have been taken with songs and dates to ensure the better known songs are liberally scattered throughout the production. So I Love To Boogie (from 76) is sung in a scene from the 60s for instance and a particularly raunchy Easy Action soundtracks Bolan’s rumpy pumpy with his soon to be wife June Child. It works though, partially perhaps because Bolan himself took rock and roll influences from the 50s and 60s to create his glam sound and partially because...well...let's face it this is a musical and not a freakin’ documentary.
At times the writers pull few punches and Bolan’s ego, occasional violent outbursts, drink/drug abuse and mistreatment of some of those who’d helped him become a star (notably John Peel and Tony Visconti) are all well covered which lifts this above the puff piece it could so easily have been. Act II’s Whatever Happened To The Teenage Dream, with the stage bathed in red light and Bolan on the floor (literally and metaphorically) summed up his fall from grace rather brilliantly. From there on Bolan seemed to rally a little though and, had he lived, there’s a fair chance he’d still be spreading Hot Love today but destiny had other plans of course. Whilst most people in the audience will know what happens the last few minutes of Bolan’s life and that fateful decision to let girlfriend Gloria Jones drive still packs a punch. From T-Rex to a tree wreck...how sad. Of course this being a musical Bolan soon rises from the dead and the encore delivers enough hits to dry any tears and get the audience up and dancing.
There are some impressive performances from this cast with Warren Sollars really nailing some of Bolan’s mannerisms and voice (both singing and talking) and Sue Jenkins’ moving from devoted to grieving mother as the scenes shift from past to present. Lucy Sinclair as June Child delivers some of the best vocal performances of the night, closely tied with Donna Hines as Gloria Jones (the gospel tinged Light Of Love being a real highlight), whilst Luke Bailey is perfect as Bolan’s son looking to find himself. Kudos to Steve Simmonds for a brief but wonderfully weird Fast Show version of Captain Sensible too...I’m sure the good Captain would love it. The use of authentic film clips projected onto the scenery adds a little extra depth and life to the whole show and happily the sound was beefy enough to conjure up that live gig feel during the 'concert' scenes. All you needed was a swarm of schoolgirls throwing their underwear at the stage and Jimmy Savile...actually let's gloss over that...and you could almost have been back in the 70s...
Some of those who were lucky enough to have seen the real Bolan live have given this production a ‘thumbs up’, which is pretty much as good a recommendation as you can get. After all Bolan fans tend to know their stuff and are fiercely protective of his legacy. Given the fact that this production tells Bolan’s life story though there’s plenty for T-Rex virgins to enjoy too and, even if by some miracle you’ve never heard a single one of these songs before, plenty of them (glam) rock. All in all a 21st Century joy.
20th Century Boy is on at the New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 3rd May. Tickets here!
Photos by Robert Day
Photos by Robert Day