Jazz/Endgame/The Pleasure Man
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Opened 2-4 February, 2000

In Robert David MacDonald's production in the Circle Studio of the Citz, Endgame clocks in at a sprightly 75 minutes. This is taking things at a fair old lick, about as unexpected with Beckett as hearing the line, "Ah, Godot there you are!" Towards the end, put-upon servant Clov brings an alarm clock onstage and cracks a deadpan Beckettian gag about "winding up", but really the whole play is about winding down. As such, although Brendan Hooper's Clov (who positively bustles at times!) and Simon Dutton's blind, resonant Hamm preserve their interplay, the sense is missing that both their individual resources and those of the world in which they find themselves are becoming slowly exhausted. The sense is not of groaning ennui, but rather almost of triviality.

In some respects, Jean Rhys's short story Let Them Call It Jazz adapted as plain Jazz in the Stalls Studio is a catalogue of trivialities whose consequences for the Caribbean-born narratrix seem quite disproportionate. Yet in Jon Pope's production and Julie Saunders's portrayal, we accept and understand how such an undistinguished catalogue of low-level racism and petty depredation in 1950s/'60s London could have so ground down young Selina and eventually landed her in Holloway jail. Saunders tells her story well, inhabiting it emotionally from moment to moment rather than investing it with the wisdom of hindsight, and when she breaks into song she has something of the easy swing of Ella Fitzgerald.

Several years ago, Rhys's short story was staged by Neil Bartlett's erstwhile company Gloria, whose musical director Nicolas Bloomfield appears on the main stage here, doubling as a drag queen and quelle surprise a musical director in Mae West's The Pleasure Man. It is generally overlooked that West arrived in Hollywood on the strengths of her writing as much as of her performance, and the remarkable construction of this vaudeville-backstage drama is testament to those strengths. The first act, in particular, is an astounding kaleidoscope, as acts arrive on the bare stage to set up for that week's run at the theatre, and snatches of song, dance, dialogue and innuendo fly out between the raising and lowering of backcloths and lighting bars.

On its second Broadway performance in 1928, The Pleasure Man was raided and its entire cast arrested for obscenity. This, too, is understandable, with its drag queens (and kings), single entendres (yes, "gay" was in use in that sense as long as seventy years ago) and grisly offstage denouement; I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the family next to me arrived home after the show, to hear the mother explaining to her eight-year-old daughter exactly what was meant by the oblique but plentiful references to a fatal operation performed upon lothario "Rod" Terrill so that he could never again "treat a woman that way".

Stewart Laing makes deft use of his cast of a dozen professional actors and as many RSAMD acting students in minor roles, and utilises a labyrinth of wooden frames to suggest the doorways and mirrors of the interconnecting dressing rooms of the second act. He cannot disguise that the moral ending is rather laboured, and that West is rightly more interested in her snapshots of backstage activity than in a shapely resolution; what he does brilliantly is capture the cut-price magic of the vaudeville world.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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