Originally published on A Younger Theatre
No question about it, Angie Darcy sure can sing. As Janis Joplin in Full Tilt, she mixes rock and blues with country in a two-hour concert of fairly epic proportions. She also has a great handle on Joplin’s individual stage presence – someone who is obviously in love with the music and the stage but simultaneously exuding a confident apathy. The entirety of the first half is full of sass and swagger and a complete lack of fear or self-doubt. Yet behind the scenes in her dressing room, Darcy sits back and shrinks into a shadow of her stage self. That attitude is still there but the confidence has waned, the bravado has diminished and the fire has been quenched. In front of hoards of fans, Darcy shows how lonely Joplin must have truly felt.
Writer Peter Arnott focuses on the title character’s stage presence for the majority of the show and, as such, seems to lose something of the background to the character. Told for the most part as a monologue, Joplin takes centre stage at one of her concerts and summarises her entire life in bite-sized chunks that she feeds the audience in order to segue between her songs. Jessica Brettle’s set and Cora Bissett’s direction mirror this; the mike is front and centre, the band is placed behind and the compact dressing room set is relegated to the side of the stage. Whilst this admittedly does give a certain flow to the production (there are no scene changes or significant pauses for Darcy to lose momentum), it very much sacrifices the woman for the rockstar.
The early years were obviously a difficult period in the singer’s all-too-short life. Trying to discover identity in a time and community that was so set on conforming to stereotype, it’s small wonder that Joplin fled to San Francisco in an attempt to be herself. For a time it works: “the freaks were the kings of the world”. When forced to return (temporarily) to her former life, the story doesn’t allow Darcy to truly explore the depths of her character’s self-loathing and fragile state of mind. There is a quick pause, a flippant few remarks and then the well-known devil-may-care singer is back with a vocally flawless performance: Take Another Little Piece Of My Heart. After that point the budding performer has made it big, churns out another killer song and pauses for the show’s interval. In the second half, the characters have suddenly taken a U-turn away from booze and drugs and are discovering country music and jamming together on trains. Has the audience all fallen asleep and missed a scene?
The woman behind the performer comes out much more nearer to the end, which is poignant given that (like the singer herself) this story ends all too suddenly. In some ways the production mirrors Joplin’s life and the world is left without her trailblazing work at putting female rock singers on the map. That is bitter consolation however, for a play that has focused so much on the songs that it has almost forgotten the story. The woman behind the stage persona known as Pearl shall remain so for some time to come.
Janis Joplin: Full Tilt is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 5 March. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website. Photo: Robert Day.