Review: Chasing the Moment
By Shaun Hutchinson
When the versatile musician-playwright Jack Shepherd announces at the beginning of the performance the problems that have beset the production since the start of its month-long run at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre, the audience must have wondered what to expect.
The award-winning writer described a candlelit first night caused by a power cut; and for this evening’s show appendicitis-stricken performer Tom Silburn being replaced at the last minute by Steve Smith.
The show must go on and it did. Smith’s character – the arrogant and conceited womanising guitarist Joe - is actually quite good. The fact that he delivers his lines glancing intermittently at a hand-held script didn’t harm the event.
Nevertheless, it’s a lingering irritant.
And perhaps these real life incidents mirror the problems which beset the characters in this drama of relationships set around a Hackney jazz club.
Tension drifts around the atmosphere like stale marijuana smoke as the musicians clash over jazz-inspired debates – authenticity and credibility, tradition versus modernity. These are complex, well-developed characters addressing equally profound issues.
Here lies the intrigue of the relationship between folks brought together by their love of the music and a need to perform to make a living. The quartet is like a marriage: Intimate, comfortable in each others presence through a shared passion for the music – but also tense, resentful, argumentative. In this case not over the petty issues which result in divorce but grand themes related to artistic integrity, history, and musical authenticity.
The dialogue is engaging, genuine, in a script that travels over controversial terrain but never feels preachy or didactic. And like a jazz album with top notch players each performer gets a chance to shine – in this case alternating their lines and recounting their own personal problems but also why and how they fell in love with the music and what it means to them.
Like jazz musicians they each rise to the occasion creating a penetrating piece of theatre which has a definite rhythm and structure.
And like the background noise which intrudes when listening to a CD or at a concert there’s the story of unseen club-owner Wes’ wife Joanna [Helen Anderson] sad and dignified but hiding her hurt - battling to cope with his illness and death. The complication of drummer Tony’s sister Sharon’s [Gracy Goldman] love-hate affair with gigolo guitarist Joe adds to the taut atmosphere.
Steve Smith’s Joe - stylish, tall, slim, and cocky - personifies the well-educated, classically-trained musician whom Jack Shepherd’s persuasive elder statesman Les despises but is forced to rely on.
Jim Bywater’s poignant and harrowing performance as drug-addled and cash-strapped bassist Harry puts matters into perspective. He recognizes the influence of his art – but is beholden to money to feed his addictions. Keeping the beat of the band is Tony [Clifford Samuels] the drummer – young, sensitive, yearning for acceptance – both from a dominant father and band leader Les.
This strain between the quartets is epitomised perfectly by the dialogue between cantankerous, erudite and knowledgeable Les and a passionate Tony. It is this duo whose volcanic debates reflect the traditionalists’ resentment towards their younger peers - who also happen to be their adversaries and successors.
In the first half of this two-hour plus show directed by the Arcola’s Mehmet Ergen, the actors meticulously arrange their instruments and in the second half put them. The realism of the debates and dialogue is augmented by a stage and set - designed by Patrick du Wors – with the actors moving about between the audience.
As a story Chasing the Moment is pretty depressing. But then jazz itself was born in the early 20th century from the traditions, heritage and culture of Black America in an environment of blatant exploitation, brutal lynch-mob violence, humiliation and oppression – a condition which never defeated a natural exuberance and determination, nor indefatigability and commitment to be and to be human.
That’s why jazz remains an endearing musical genre - as strong and globally popular as ever. Chasing the Moment articulates this intangible quality.
Arcola Theatre, Arcola Street, Hackney London
17 – 24 February 2007
Writer: Jim Shepherd
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Design: Patrick Du Wors
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com