Peter Arnott’s tribute-act-slash-documentary-slash-gig has grown significantly since it started life as part of A Play, a Pie and a Pint at the Òran Mór in Glasgow. Now at double the length and with twice the swagger, the show has become as towering, rambling and remarkable as any sixties guitar solo. Much of the added time is filled with music, making this less a play with songs, and more a full-on rock concert fronted by a charismatic performer playing an even more charismatic performer.
Angie Darcy makes an extraordinary Joplin, and must have spent hours trawling through performance footage to perfectly capture her many quirks, idiosyncrasies and nervous tics. One moment she’ll be dancing across the stage, tossing her hair and attacking the cymbals, the next she’ll be withdrawn, awkwardly playing with her jewellery and curling up around a bottle of bourbon. Most importantly, she nails the singer’s magnificent, broken voice, which leaps between squeaks and growls, soaring high notes and her distinctive Muttley chuckle. Listen to the end of Mercedes Benz for a recorded example of that endearing wheezy snicker.
Joplin was always a talkative frontwoman, connecting with her audience through wise, wry, heartfelt chats, and the play features plenty of verbatim material taken from various interviews and recordings. Each section of dialogue demonstrates an aspect of her complex character, but also serves to introduce the song which follows it, so the music and the text inform and reflect on one another.
It doesn’t hurt that the band is tight and enthusiastic, tackling the back catalogue with evident passion. There’s a rocky, rough edge to their covers that ensures every track injects the show with a fresh burst of adrenal energy, while never feeling unfaithful to the original versions. Musical director Harry Ward cuts loose from time to time with some fabulous, screeching guitar work, but really stands out on an acoustic cover of Little Feat’s Willin’.
Ironically, one of the show’s other highlights also involves a song by another artist. Reflecting on her teenage years growing up in segregated, small-town Texas, Janis tunes her radio to the ‘coloured music station’ as an act of rebellion and solidarity. It’s a beautiful moment of stillness in this otherwise relentlessly high-octane show, as Janis realises she’ll always be an outsider, and dedicates herself to a life of complete truthfulness. ‘How can you lie,’ she asks, ‘in a world where Bessie Smith sings Jailhouse Blues?’
The struggle between a need to be accepted and a need to be herself – ‘flaky, freaky, and unattractive’ as she believed she was – seems to have been the driving force in Joplin’s intense life and inevitable burn-out. In the second act, with the quantity of songs increasing and the dialogue becoming ever more fractured, we see Janis dragging herself back to the mic time and again, creating a compelling sense of building exhaustion. The balance between drama and gig starts to skew here, and the sudden appearance of naturalistic scenes and a lonely monologue from another character feels jarring. However, Cora Bissett’s clean, clear direction keeps the show on the rails, while the band’s invigorating playing drives things forward.
As Joplin once said, ‘if you’re getting more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it, man. You just need more music.’ That feels like the right spirit in which to celebrate her chaotic, contradictory, but profoundly creative life.
Janis Joplin: Full Tilt is on until 5th March 2016. Click here for tickets.