ROAD TO NOWHERE
Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 20 October, 2005
****

This second London show by the Young@Heart chorus, a group of septua- and octogenarians from Northampton, Mass., spends an hour generating sometimes immense emotional heft as well as passing forceful comment on the state of their lives and ours, only to piss it all away crassly in the final fifteen minutes.

The premise is simple: popular songs of the last 40 years take on different meanings when sung by old people. Rolling Stones numbers such as "Mother's Little Helper", "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "Ruby Tuesday" can contain new insight in their self-deprecation and anger from folk a generation older even than Mick Jagger, and can find an elegiac strain in the most unexpected places as "Paint It Black" becomes a lament against the dying of the light. The Zombies' "She's Not There" becomes a howl of rage at a different kind of vanishment, as time and biology wash away the youth and beauty of one's beloved. On John Lennon's "Jealous Guy", you know the ruefulness has been earned, and Donald Jones's querulous tremolo has been bought by his 75 years in a way that Neil Young's never was when he recorded "Helpless".

Nor do the company tackle only baby-boomer-era material. U2's "One" becomes a cry that we need to feel love at any age, and Pat Linderme (75) brings a rasping, late-period Marianne Faithfull "seen it all and tired of it" quality to Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees". A unison rendition of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" is wryly ambiguous, although renditions of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" and Outkast's "Hey Ya" are more throwaway.

Running through the show is a current of sadness and sometime fury that these days the quotidian grind just never ceases. The Clash's "Lost In The Supermarket" grumbles at continuing consumer banality, and The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" is transformed into a searing indictment of seniors having to take McJobs just to subsist even in their twilight years. David Byrne would surely love the curmudgeonly directness with which the title number becomes infused as they sing "We're not little children/And we know what we want". If it seems odd that Young@Heart are appropriating the songs of their descendants' generations, think on this: of the evening's composers, Lennon, George Harrison, Joe Strummer and three of The Ramones have already predeceased those onstage.

It's not theatre as such the set is simply a reproduction of their community centre, so that all the steps and corners are familiar to the performers but the articulation of emotional and intellectual content is to all intents and purposes a kind of drama in itself. And then it all gets squandered.

Now and again in the main show, one wonders whether the fundamental impulse on the part of (middle-aged) directors Bob Cilman and Roy Faudree is simply the novelty of incongruousness, and whether the deeper content simply grows out of that flinty soil with its shards of patronisation and even a germ of unconscious derision. The encore, alas, confirms it. After 60 minutes of sometimes almost Chekhovian musings, they shatter the mood with a segue of  mindless feelgood numbers: a coy cough on the "giving head" lyric in "Walk On The Wild Side" signals that it's only a lark. 92-year-old Eileen Hall, who earlier brings an affecting tristesse to "Ruby Tuesday", bigs up her native city with "Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner" and takes the lead on a fun-fun-fun rendition of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go". Dylan's "Forever Young", which if placed earlier could have provided a climax of the evening's integral poignancy, is reduced to weepie-exploitation. This is one of the few musical shows I've ever seen that I have felt actually deserved an encore, but the one programmed by Silman and Faudree taints all that has gone before, turning it to no more than diverting dross.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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