There is of course an added poignancy to watching a show based around David Bowie in the week he would have been celebrating his 70th birthday, and writer/director Adrian Berry’s From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is a fitting tribute to the man and his influence.
Martin is a nervy, complicated kid – chafing at his dreary life, recovering from an eating disorder and with a dual obsession for the father who abandoned him as a child and the music that father adored. On his 18th birthday, an unexpected message sets him on an impressionistic odyssey in the footsteps of a young Bowie.
It’s tender, funny and beautifully observed, with a nice undercurrent of sly humour – clips from Bowie’s interviews (voiced by Rob Newman) are well-placed to undercut or reinforce the action (including a brutally dismissive summary of Croydon). On stage alone, Alex Walton is exceptional as Martin, all naivete and nervous energy, and he also handles the sorry assortment of characters the teen encounters with aplomb, from stoner tenant of Bowie’s old house to disinterested pub landlord.
It’s not without its flaws – for a production keen to eschew traditional ideas of masculinity, it’s awfully dismissive of women. The girls in Martin’s eating disorder group are ‘silly’ and obsessed with boys and TV stars, his mother is a tragic-comic figure smelling of fags and Advocaat; and while we enjoy the robustness of his counsellor (voiced by Margaret Campbell), we are encouraged to laugh at the fact that she reads Harry Potter instead of Philip Larkin.
Naturally, some of this is because Martin is our point of reference, and for all his sensitivity, he’s as self-obsessed as the next teenager, quick to embrace what’s new and shiny, and dismiss the mundaneness of his everyday existence. But the audience is made complicit in the toxic elision of disillusioned idealist and shitty parent – never mind that his father’s contribution to his son’s life is little more than some records and a treasure hunt, he’s romanticised as a man who shed the shackles of an oppressively small life, while the woman left to clean up after that desertion is pitied for her neediness and sneered at for her gameshow viewing habits.
But ultimately the piece succeeds because it understands the poignant, personal nature of true fandom. Nobody becomes obsessed with a singer simply because they like the music, but because something in the performer echoes in their lives: in Martin, his need to connect with the father who left him, and his own inherent, deeply-felt difference. Part of Bowie’s brilliance was he was so blatant yet beguiling in his freakery he encouraged us to embrace our own, however deeply buried. Berry captures the allure of that voice in our teenage bedrooms speaking directly to our unformed souls – reassuring us that, no matter our weirdness, we’re not in this alone.
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is on at The Old Market in Brighton until 11 January 2017. Click here for more details.