Magazine article The Spectator

Social Harmony

Magazine article The Spectator

Social Harmony

Article excerpt

John Adams's latest piece of musical theatre, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, is a trip down memory lane, specifically into the early Seventies world of radical chic, returning as nostalgia rather than camp. The press release explains that `set on the streets in LA, this exciting musical piece uses jazz, soul and gospel music to follow the lives of seven young people in their search for love and freedom'. It has 'a multi-racial cast of young singer/actors', and attracted a multi-racial audience to the London premiere in the Warehouse of the Southwark Playhouse. How important the venue was to the show's undoubted success, I'm not sure. Plenty of atmosphere, of course, in an unadorned - apart from some crude paintings - and unheated brick building, people wandering in from a bar at the back, complete disorganisation about tickets, appalling sight-lines, the discovery that the person one was sitting next to wasn't complaining or getting carried away, but was merely a strategically placed member of the cast warming up for her appearance on the performing space.

Rather dangerously, a record of Bach's Third Orchestral Suite was playing while the audience tried to find seats and then waited for the compulsorily late start. Bach was turned abruptly off and made way for the lingua franca of minimalism, provided by an eight-piece band jivily conducted by John Janssen. The usual four-note repeated figure, some soupy harmonies and, as promised, some sorties into something like jazz provide the background for the incidents that occur among the seven members of the cast, four of them black and three white. A young white girl gets pregnant by a black man, and is told to use condoms `or else go to the movies', but she has the baby anyway and that gives rise to quite a lot of singing. Mostly this consists of solo numbers which are reminiscent of West Side Story or earlier musicals, and the atmosphere of keepin' goin' and trying to get some fun out of living in an unjust world is that of Porgy and Bess.

The text is by June Jordan, who, the notes tell us, `from her coverage of the 1964 Harlem riots, to her activism against the Gulf war, to her essays championing the poor is one of North America's most articulate voices'. The lyrics are what one might expect from someone so engaged. She doesn't have any gift for, or perhaps she spurns, a narrative line; and although that may be worthy, in that conventional incident-packed narratives are too neat for what these ordinary lives are like, Jordan might reflect that the link between character and narrative is closer than she might wish, and that if you more or less dispense with a plot you are going to have a set of performers who can hardly create individual personalities on the stage, unless what they have to sing is much more pointed than anything Adams provides. …

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