For years I've had a bee in my bonnet about work in which onstage musicians participate in and propel the dramatic action, rather than either commenting upon it or overshadowing it from a bunker offstage. Django Bates and Simon Black's "jazz romance" attempts just such a fusion and, although it's great fun, I'm sorry to say that it's not much besides.
Bates's modern-jazz quartet Human Chain occupy centre stage while before, behind and amongst them is enacted the course of a true love seemingly destined never to run smooth. Django, resplendent behind his keyboard in a turquoise lamé jacket, announces numbers like "They Met At A Party", "Making Up" ("a difficult one") and the rather haunting "Life Is Too Poignant"; between, and sometimes through, these tunes Karen Ascoe and Robert Horwell present the big-value package of romantic complications suffered by Zoe and Cliff: personal insecurities, affairs with (invariably kooky) others, numerous separations, the whole bit.
Occasionally one of the musos will play a character's "lines" on his instrument – most bizarrely when a meek mousewife's mumbles and whines are conveyed by bassist Michael Mondesir sliding up and down his strings with a jar of Marmite. For the most part, though, the music is semi-improvised jazz noodling, skilful but unspectacular; it evokes moods without fully engaging the emotions.
Black's script is likewise lively and on a few occasions poetic (notably in the final sequence, "Save Me My Beloved"), but is more of a linked series of sketches than a play in itself. The secondary characters are all cartoons, whose two-dimensionality at times infects Cliff and Zoe themselves. The few dance passages seem awkward and almost embarrassed.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of enjoyment in these two hours; but it is as if, having realised that the hoped-for synthesis of music and drama wasn't going to come off, the parties have opted for japery to see them through. It's playful, but it ain't a play; gigglesome, but not a real gig. Out There is more akin to a pleasurable one-night stand than to the amorous big time.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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