Simon Ward reviews Tomorrow May Be My Last at The Old Red Lion Theatre
I first reviewed a version of this show – described as a ‘music-driven play’ – when it was playing at The Union theatre at the end of August last year, as we were taking our first tentative steps out of lockdown. It was a hugely welcome breath of fresh air back then, and today, in this re-worked version, it has lost none of its power to thrill and to shock in equal measure. This is a pared back rendition – the flower power backing vocalists and supporting cast have gone – leaving us to focus entirely on the miraculous transformation of Collette Cooper into Janis Joplin, with sterling support as before from the band TSP. It is still a loud, sweaty romp though the all-too-brief life of its inspiration and its star, whom Cooper (writer, performer and co-director) has lovingly brought back to life. And again, I found its charms impossible to resist.
The intimacy of room-above-a-pub theatre is here made a virtue, as we see Janis both backstage as she changes outfits and onstage as she belts out heartfelt renditions of all the Joplin classics you never realised you knew. The demons that haunt her are ever present here, represented by a couple of gruesome props and the echoing of playground taunts running through her head. Cooper doesn’t let us forget that Joplin goes through many ups and downs, is never really accepted or understood by her parents, never really finds love…even while we are awed by the incredible gutsy singing that seems to be wrenched from the very depths of her soul.
The expertise of the band shines throughout – they are brilliant as the musicians irritated by the vagaries of a wayward singer – and Joplin’s late entrance for the opening number is not the only time they will be left waiting for her to get into the zone. As at the Union, the technical crew again do a brilliant job of keeping it rocking but not deafening within the confines of the small space, notwithstanding a cautionary note in the programme.
The scene setting is done with the aid of seventies video footage at the back of the stage – this is most effectively used at the climactic moment when Janis suddenly dies and the screen fills with contemporary newspaper headlines and broadcasts announcing the news to a bemused world. Needless to say it doesn’t end there – if this show proves anything it is that the music lives on – and Cooper ensures we leave the theatre on a high, grinning from ear to ear and determined to dust down some old records.
The passion of Collette Cooper’s performance is astonishing – it is almost exhausting to watch as she moves from pathos to ballsy rock and roll without ever missing a beat. It is clear that she loves doing this and her passion is infectious. My only complaint is that I wish it had gone on longer – there was surely time for a few more numbers – but this is a raucous, joyful celebration of the life and times of a very special talent.
Tomorrow May Be My Last is playing at The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ until Saturday 11th June.