Pop stars burn bright and briefly. Often we only see them at their brightest but this musical story of Marc Bolan sheds light into his life before fame – although even as a child he dreamed of becoming ‘bigger than Elvis’ we are told.
It’s a form that has worked well since ‘Buddy’ told the story of a similarly young, short-lived and influential star. We begin after Bolan’s untimely death in a car crash at just 29, with George Maguire as Bolan pondering his own legacy. This device enables a quick flash-back to school boy Marc and his adoring mum. From here on we’re on a ride through his life with generous helpings of his greatest hits. Early on the simple but effective set unfolds to reveal the (excellent) real live band, who crop-up later as T. Rex. For the most part the songs appear only as natural performances at gigs, concerts, recording studios and so on. Occasionally they are placed into the narrative Mamma Mia style to illustrate the story and character. But Bolan’s music is simple in its form and lacks the variety to work effectively as an illustrator of emotion and plot so is wisely not used in this way often.
The Bolan we meet in this version of his life is cocky but charming as a youngster. When his mum complains about the noise he comes back with, “It’s rock and roll, mum. It only comes in loud.” His heroes have a habit of dying young in car crashes, most notably James Dean. Only when he latches on to Cliff Richard does he find someone who he thinks “might live forever.”
This supreme self confidence leads to his marriage when he meets his future wife, who is it seems some sort of receptionist or clerk at a record company, and plays his demo song to her. “It’s left a strange buzzing in my head,” she says. “That’ll be me, then,” he replies and proposes almost on the spot.
The story is told in the usual efficient way of these things. Characters are well played by the hard working and enthusiastic cast. George Maguire, though, shines. He makes us fall for Bolan as we would an over enthusiastic puppy. He may be badly behaved but he’s so cute and charming we can’t be cross with him.
Then there’s the music. Clearly many in the audience were serious devotees of T. Rex. Someone brought along a white swan (a toy one, obviously!). Another had an original Marc Bolan/T. Rex scarf from the 70s. That’s before you get to the feather boas. Their devotion was well-rewarded with outstanding renditions of all the classics both throughout the show and in the obligatory encore. And even if your knowledge of T. Rex extends only to ‘I want to boogie’ as featured in Billy Elliot, you’ll soon discover that you know much more than you think. His music is so straightforward in its construction, but the sound is something he worked on. Hearing it now 40 years on sounding so fresh and original it’s clear there is something genuinely unique and special about it. The simplicity really works, as does this musical.
20th Century Boy is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 13 June 2018 and on tour until the end of the month.
One thought on “Review – 20th Century Boy – The Musical”
I absolutely loved this and caught it when it first toured! Unfortunatley for this tour it didn’t come to my closest theatres.