Review by Sam Waite
WARNING: Please be advised, this show, and this review by association, feature references to alcoholism, drug use, and overdose.
Janis Joplin was an American musician who came to fame through San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene, first as the frontwoman for Big Brother and The Holding Company, and then with a brief but successful solo career. This solo career was cut tragically short by her passing at the age of 27, putting her among the ranks of other tragic figures such as Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Drifters star Rudy Lewis. Despite her death in October 1970, her electric presence and commanding energy can be found in London, above the Old Red Lion pub.
Written by its star, Collette Cooper, Tomorrow May Be My Last is part tribute act and part one-woman show. As crowd sounds pump through the speakers, a voice introduces Janis Joplin to thunderous applause, then nothing. The same voice introduces Joplin again, and her band looks around in dismay and resets the song. On the third announcement, Cooper enters having already vanished – this is not an actress playing a role, this is a wild rocker born to the marriage of psychedelic rock and soulful southern blues. When Joplin the star leaves her stage, Janis the human being comes slowly apart in her dressing room.
Collette Cooper’s performance and writing are immaculate – she manages a precarious balance which has let down many before her, in that she is the only one speaking and yet this never feels like a TED talk or raises questions of why she’s speaking to an audience when alone. Sometimes directed to no one and sometimes to a bottle of Southern Comfort – her “only real friend” and the show’s sponsor – Janis is reliving her own short life perhaps during her overdose, or perhaps shortly before in the broken state that brought her to it. Throughout the several hazy nights combined into a singular, electrifying 90 minutes, Cooper is alarmingly human and thrillingly alive in her work.
Songs are peppered throughout the performance, with one side of the stage dressed up as a dressing room and the other, closer to the audience, left open for the musical interludes. As things go on, the distinction between these concert scenes and the revelatory monologues blur and she steps freely between them, the boundary having faded away. Cooper sings incredibly well, carefully letting beauty find its way into her tone only when appropriate – Janis Joplin’s mezzo belt was known for power and emotion, not precision or pleasantness. The title song, an original written by Cooper herself for the piece, blends seamlessly and has clearly been crafted with a nuanced understanding of Joplin’s style of writing and performance.
The script itself is equal parts blunt confession and elegant poetry, as we go through a troubled youth and perhaps more troubled adulthood and explore how an icon came to be both that legendary figure and the fragile, hurt creature behind it. Wisely, the temptation to turn a pro-integration rockstar into a white saviour figure is ignored in favour of demonstrating genuine appreciation for the black voices who created the blues and soul music Joplin found influence and comfort in. Even more wise is the constant, underlying acknowledgement of Joplin’s addictions, not melancholically discussed in that way only fictional characters explain the plight of substance reliance, simply mentioned here and there and brought into focus by the presence of a belt – Cooper’s wardrobe never requires one be worn – and the “voices in my head” which periodically interrupt the proceedings.
The backing band, presumably appearing as an amalgamation of real-life backup groups the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie Band, are rock quartet TSP. Composed of Jack Parry, Jan Simson, Daniel Malek and Sam McDonald, TSP play exceptionally well and are convincing as long-suffering musicians when the star’s antics delay their work. The sound and visuals, provided by Mike Hanson, serve the piece beautifully, with the voices in Janis’s head (“Fat and ugly Janis Joplin! You’re nothing!”) being underlying and soft or loud and abrasive as needed, while videos displayed on the wall of the dressing room help to keep the historical element of the work in check. Likewise, costumes devised by Amanda Newall help to ground the story in the reality of the time.
Truly immersive and like being flung between a play and a rock concert, we are pulled into this world and era from the get-go. After being offered LSD by a serene, softly spoken usher, you are welcomed to “the show” and engaged fully whenever “Janis” is on stage. Cooper commits herself entirely, handing out backstage passes and mini bottles of Southern Comfort (already found on each seat upon entry) and leading the crowd in singalongs to her music. At one point, she is in a fit of drug-addled rage and climbs onto a seat to demand answers of an audience member, while in the uplifting final number she pulls members of the crowd up to dance – if audience participation isn’t for you, avoid the front row and particularly the centre. As she took my hand and pulled me up to dance with her, the immediate feeling was not of being part of the play, but of being on stage with Janis herself.
An emotional rollercoaster I’d happily ride time and time again, writer, director and star Collette Cooper has created something truly remarkable. Its no wonder this show is now returning to the Old Red Lion, having previously won awards and acclaim, and I don’t doubt it will be revived and re-discovered countless times in the years to come. Anchored by not only a stunning performance but also a genuine and heartfelt joy at creating and sharing something born of passion, Tomorrow May Be My Last finds beauty and comfort in a troubled young woman’s legacy, even after the chilling moment when the belt wraps around her arm.
Tomorrow May Be My Last plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre, above the pub of the same name, until May 6th.
Tickets can be purchased at: Tomorrow May Be My Last (oldredliontheatre.co.uk)
Photos by Robin Pope