JELLY ROLL
Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
Opened 13 September, 1995

Vernel Bagneris's not-quite-solo tribute to the self-styled inventor of jazz Ferdinand Morton arrives laden with a clutch of off-Broadway awards, and some inadvertently hilarious programme notes it's vital, for instance, that we learn its associate producer is "Executive Vice President... of an oil and gas exploration and production company headquarted [sic] in Lafayette, Louisiana."

It's a thoroughly amiable entertainment rather than a full-blooded musical. As Jelly Roll, Bagneris sits in a leather armchair pouring himself drinks from a decanter, strolls around the stage and regales us in an affable Southern ramble with anecdotes from his life and gouts of urbane vitriol about his numerous rip-offs by other jazzers; indeed, he is rather more personable than the historical Jelly Roll Morton seems to have been. When singing along to musical numbers such as "Bowlin' The Jack" and "Buddy Bolden's Blues", he glides languidly across the stage in a wryly self-conscious manner, as if he's too cool to put his back into this dancing lark.

Note that phrase "singing along", for the oddest aspect of this bio-musical about a ground-breaking pianist is that Bagneris doesn't actually play the piano. Now and again he mimes along to a few bars, and at one point even blows a kazoo solo, but the keyboard duties are handled admirably, it must be said by Morten Gunnar Larsen, credited as "The Professor" but never alluded to in the script. This opens up the staging a little and leaves Mr B free to charm us with both hands, as it were, but is one of the most shamelessly expedient devices I've seen in a musical, and verges on robbing the whole affair of its point.

There are worse ways to spend an hour and a quarter, but it all feels a little throwaway.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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