Janis Joplin: Full Tilt – See this fucking show. See it now.

Janis Joplin (Angie Darcy, though she may as well be the real deal) swaggers over the Assembly Ballroom stage, swigging from a Budweiser and talking about her seeming inability to get laid on a Saturday afternoon. Over a lightning-fast 75 minutes, we hear her story – a meteoric rise to fame amid the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s; shouting loud against systematic oppression and injustice; climaxing in a tragic death at 27 from a heroin overdose. Interspersed with this story, we hear her songs: tracks sung with a primal intensity and authentic rage that scream authenticity.

The production design is simple, and yet absolute genius. The four-piece ‘Full Tilt Boogie Band’ stand in the background, garbed in sunglasses and bandanas, in front of a series of blinding concert spotlights. In front of them, an empty stage and a mic. To the right, a mock-up of a dressing room, littered with empty cigarette packets and half-drunk bottles of bourbon. For 75 minutes, Joplin lurches between these two environments, drinking stage beer upon stage beer, whiskey after whiskey, chain-smoking cigarettes. And, as she does it, she talks: about her childhood and never fitting in, about spending her life constantly wired on drink and drugs – about finding solace in beer at 14 years of age. And, for 75 minutes we are absolutely transfixed. This isn’t a particularly in-depth, or even notably nuanced piece of work  – but it’s just so utterly, shatteringly, compelling that I was in awe for nearly every second.

The songs are inserted at perfect moments – times where the cosmos feel precisely aligned for the rollicking, psychedelic soul and blues tracks that defined Joplin’s career. And, indeed, when they come, the stage is transformed into an authentic concert venue in 60’s San Fran. Glaring multi-coloured spotlights shroud Joplin in silhouette as bone-crunchingly loud, unmistakably authentic sound screams from her band’s instruments. 

Is this a musical? I don’t think so. It’s more of a concert with added monologue. There’s gig lighting, gig mist, and a gig atmosphere in the venue. Darcy behaves less like an actor and more like a Rockstar. Does it work? Musicals work on stage because they’re designed to be passive experiences: the songs are usually excessively theatrical, with relevant lyrics obviously audible to the audience, and rely on dance/production design to achieve their impact. The audience is supposed to just sit there and watch the cast perform in front of them.

With Full Tilt, it’s a bit more complicated. About 50% of this production is essentially a tribute gig – although that has unjustly unflattering connotations. The backing band play their music, Angie Darcy sings the songs, and the production design flashes and strobes – one wonders whether a standing-only setup would have been more fitting. It feels exactly like a live concert and, at times, there’s an almost pathological urge to get up and dance – an urge that remains unsatisfied due to a respectably-aged, silent audience (until the corny country songs come in near the end). But in terms of this being a play (I remind you, it is a play), the practical pitfalls of a concert-cum-monologue become thematically relevant. The idea is that Joplin soared to fame and adoration in a remarkably short period of time – here she is, performing her heart out on stage, with her band, in front of leagues of fans – and yet she feels incomprehensibly lonely.

Those passionate, roaring renditions of her songs, performed to an unblinking seated audience shrouded in darkness, add an extra dimension of sadness to a story which doesn’t fully embrace tragedy until its final minutes. Perhaps, without it – if the whole affair was too jovial – the tonal change might have felt jarring. But, as it is, the electric rendition of Kosmik Blues is a multi-textured marvel in almost every sense. As the Boogie Band filter through potent strains of trip-out psychedelic prog, groovy, head-bobbing blues, and effervescent, rollicking hard-rock, we can’t help but be in awe. Not only is there the full-force of musical mastery behind the moment, given full justice by the incredible musicians performing this show, but a car-crash of complex emotion: hope, sadness, joy.

But as much as this is beautifully done, I feel that Full Tilt is a show that collects most of its mileage on a stunning evocation of place and time. Late 60’s America presents an incredibly important moment of the 20th century – in terms of race relations, music, and culture to name but three of the limitless facets of the Summer of Love. Darcy’s ‘but fuck it… maannnnnn’ southern drawl and conversational tone feel like natural extensions of this very moment (be it the genuine article or just cultural stereotyping – do these things even matter?). In watching Full Tilt, one gets the sense that we’re exploring this time period in all its paradoxical complexity – both its limitless freedom and its crushing isolation. Joplin finds solace in people like her, in psychoactive substances (as so many did), and to some extent finds happiness; yet she also feels the loneliness that comes with drug abuse and fame.  There’s a tangible feeling that, whilst everyone is tripping, not everyone is having a good trip. Darcy’s delivery is framed as Joplin, the artist, speaking to fans at a concert – and it certainly comes off as exactly that: shockingly, beautifully naturalistic.  

I feel compelled, possessed even, to say the following: see this fucking show, and see it soon. If you absolutely hate Janis Joplin, then maybe it’s not for you; but I’m hardly the biggest Joplin fan in the world, and found it absolutely electric. Full Tilt is a show that fully embraces 60’s counter-culturalism: it’s an undefinable, quasi-musical, smack to the face of a monologue that’s as entertaining as it is phosphorescently compelling.

As the Janis herself says, she’s the rock; you’re the motherfucking window.

5/5


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