20th Century Boy at Nottingham Theatre Royal offers Marc Bolan fans the opportunity to revisit the iconic glam-rock singer’s biggest hits and provides an insight into his all too brief life. Touring the UK until end June, the show is a timely reminder of Bolan’s talent and influence, 40 years after his death.
George Maguire, as Marc Bolan, barely leaves the stage and has to carry the character from teenage mod through aspiring hippy to finally finding his calling in glam-rock. He also has to give a convincing performance of the unique style of Bolan and he achieves this with panache, the raspy, rock voice sounding uncannily like him. From the slurred lyrics to the belting top notes, he sounds every inch the Marc Bolan that fans will have come to hear. One wonders if a cover band would not be a more appropriate way to resurrect the songs and let fans groove along. The idea of the musical presumably is to tell the story of the man, and here the show falters somewhat. The facts are there but the story-telling is rather flat and disjointed and doesn’t really draw you in.
It is interesting to learn of Bolan’s early life that he was always interested in fashion, and as a mod, was spotted by a magazine and modelled for a short time. He was ambitious, wanting to become famous and appear on TV like many of his childhood idols. The birth of rock and roll in the 1950s meant he was in awe of the likes of Eddie Cochrane and Elvis. He continued to be influenced by people such as Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, and even into the 70s by Pink Floyd and David Bowie. Bolan claimed them all as friends, his slightly fantastical character prone to over-exaggeration but some of their imprints are there in his music. Bolan’s influence on music should not be underestimated, for where he and Bowie led, challenging the archetypes of gender and subverting expectations, many followed.
Bolan was always a poet and guitarist, so his early songs had a more ‘hippy’ vibe but the introduction of his first electric guitar was what changed ‘Ride a White Swan’ from a folksy tune to the recognisable rock classic it became. From here on in, we get all his biggest hits, including those with T Rex, such as Get it On, Metal Guru, Children of the Revolution and I Love to Boogie. All are delivered with great energy and verve by Maguire.
From a production viewpoint, the show is a little clunky. The set tries to cover both ‘internal’ scenes and become a stage for gigs but it is rather large and unwieldy and by having the band situated at the back of the stage means they feel – and look – quite detached from the action. Cine film type imagery is projected onto the walls to convey time passing and to highlight some of the key events of the 60s and 70s but there is such a jumble of imagery and sound at once that it becomes difficult to watch.
The women in the show are one of its strongest points – acting and singing with emotion and conviction that communicates well with the audience. Sarah Moss as June Child, Bolan’s wife, depicts the change from besotted girlfriend to enthusiastic manager to forgotten wife with real detail. Bolan’s mother, played by Amy Rhiannon Worth, brings some light relief and back story but isn’t really given the opportunity to show a more rounded character. A duet from Moss and Worth shows off their great vocal talents and creates lovely harmonies. Ellena Vincent as Bolan’s later girlfriend, Gloria Jones, also smashes the vocals when given the opportunity.
The feeling is that there is a real creative story to be told, of Bolan’s poetry and music, a searching for a way to express himself. It is an opportunity not quite realised in this show, in the rush to tick off a list of events of his life, rather than delve deeper into his ideas or motivations. But fans of his music will not be disappointed at the presentation of their iconic hero rocking out to his hit songs, complete with silver shoes, pink feather boa and glittery make up. A real 20th Century Boy.
20th Century Boy plays at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Sat 26th May.
Reviewer: Kathryn McAuley.