Saturday, 4 October 2014

THEATRE REVIEW: Josef Locke – A Grand Adventure

Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre presents a hard-knuckled, reflective tribute to one of its musical legends

You might think of Josef Locke – A Grand Adventure as a slideshow featuring a pompous, prima donna of a music man bickering with his son and his manager over the direction he thinks his career is going to take, the direction he feels it should take, and the direction it ultimately must take, with a series of famous songs performed along the way.

And you'd be right. Almost. For this Josef Locke is bickering with neither his son nor his manager, but with himself. This Grand Adventure, sharply penned by Felicity McCall and brought to life on the Derry-Londonderry Playhouse stage by Kieran Griffiths' steady directorial hand and Kristine Donnan's slickly adaptable musical direction, could easily be re-titled The Three Faces Of Josef Locke. It's a fascinating angle from which to approach the career of the Derry-Londonderry icon, and despite a rather protracted running time, it certainly packs a punch, both musically and emotionally.

Entering the Playhouse Theatre, the audience's eyes rest upon a large vinyl record of a stage floor with sheet music and spotlights scattered all around. The very centre of the "record" is inscribed with "Josef Locke, Hear My Song", undoubtedly referencing the sheet music that seems symbolic of the effort put into Locke's famous catalogue. The white spotlights appear very Christmassy, alternately suggesting snow flakes that haven't melted, but frozen... maybe we are set for a musical cum drama like Frozen? Well, yes, but free of Disneyfication. This is a hard-knuckled tribute full of grit and gumption.

It begins with a triple-pronged rendition of the classic Derry air "Danny Boy", led by a child (Brenn Doherty), continued by a bearded man (Peter E. Davidson) and concluded by another man (Karl McGuckin). The child is Josef Locke's "identity", the innocent, inquisitve son of Derry. The bearded man is Josef Locke's "reflective" persona, who exists to keep the idealism of the "other man", who has the most prominent singing voice, in check. He is Josef's "alter ego" the kind who believes his vocal chords forgive him everything, including a hedonistic life. 

Comedy flows as "alter ego" Josef (originally Joseph McLaughlin), debates the merits of his life with, and seeks to vocally impress, his reflective self through dialogue and song. We get insights, sometimes amusingly and sometimes soberly, into how Locke's experiences shaped him into becoming the artist he was and the legend he is. Brenn Doherty's Josef acts as a conscience, a source of Josef's origins and precociously innocent wisdom, while Peter E. Davidson's reflective Josef is the flipside of all this – the precautions and consequences of lost naivete and harsh reality. Like the rim of a coin, McGuckin's Josef feels in a state of imbalance, a strong presence trapped between opposite sides of the same entity.

This imbalance is smartly solidified in McCall's script by McGuckin's positioning on the vinyl record floor during his songs, including classics like "Kathleen" and "Galway Bay". One notes that he remains in the very centre of the "record" when he sings the songs that matter most to him, and it is no surprise: these are the moments when he cannot afford to feel as fragile and unstable as the rim of a spinning record. Only when the happy-clappy frivolous numbers such as "Blaze Away" take over does he lose that self-consciousness and not care where he stands – it's light-hearted relief for both this Josef and an audience keen to sing along whether they know the words or not. Although it must be said that for all McGuckin's efforts to break the fourth wall and "conduct" the audience, we really prefer to hear him sing. His baritone voice is that impressive.

The remainder of Josef's adventure is handled skilfully by Griffiths, traipsing a tentative but never torturous path through Josef's battles with egotism and harsh fiscal realities while keeping the soulfulness of the play intact. Even as the colour, confidence and creative freedom visibly drains from McGuckin's features throughout every song and inner debate, his Josef is clearly cleverer and more courageous by the end of his "adventure", if at a price. McGuckin's final, mournful solo rendition of "The Town I Loved So Well" is a fitting conclusion to a play in which the soulful sentiment in wishful thinking has been deconstructed, but not damaged, on a journey to reflective reality.

Josef Locke – A Grand Adventure concludes tonight, Saturday October 4, at Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre.