Arts & Books: Theatre: Elvis with a twist

People Show 107 Young Vic London
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The Independent Culture
JOSETTE BUSHELL-MINGO and the People Show have previously tackled the last three seconds of the life of Chet Baker. So the transfer of their obsessive attention now to a few momentous minutes at the start of Elvis Presley's career should feel like an epic widening of the canvas. But if this piece bites off more than it eschews, it isn't by much of a margin.

The scene is a diner in downtown Memphis at 6pm on 6 July 1954, as Elvis nervously awaits the first meeting with Sun Records, which will change his life. The mood of undischarged tension is communicated with a mesmeric meticulousness. The amplified anticipatory crackling sound at the start of an LP goes on and on, heralding only itself.

On three screens scattered over the set, the same ominous scenes from the classic western High Noon, are endlessly looped, making l'Annee Derniere a Marienbad look like the last word in forward-driving linearity. Scuttling like crabs round a cup of coffee, into which more and more sugar is poured and stirred, Elvis's hands are echoed in close-up in black-and-white movie footage. The noise of traffic blends into the blues; an edgy foot-tap segues into a drum pedal.

To what purpose? The publicity warns you that "the piece is driven by the rhythms that characterise the nervous condition, Tourette's syndrome" and certainly the show gives the electrically talented Ms Bushell-Mingo - here close-cropped and in a checked jacket and two-tone shoes - the chance to erupt in sudden uncontrolled spasms, as though jerked about by some wanton demon coiled in her pelvis. And, yes, you can see in these convulsions a parodic intimation of The King's stage act.

But while Elvis can scarcely be said to have had a clean bill of health, Tourette's syndrome did not feature among his handicaps, so you wonder what point is being made. And when you remember the scrupulousness with which Peter Brook examined neurological disorders in The Man Who, you start to feel there's something slightly tasteless about exploiting one as a performance-style here.

It's surely possible, without being philistine, to want a piece to be "about" more than this. Once in the recording studio, Elvis is seen in futile dispute with a producer who won't let him do another take. Implicit in the spectacle of a black actress playing a white singer who had the best of both worlds (palatable skin-colour and black musical influences), there may be a kind of cultural reclamation.

But nothing comes in sufficiently thought-provoking focus. What played in my head, as I left, was not a snatch from any of Elvis's numbers but a line from a song by another great American performer, Peggy Lee: "Is That All There Is?"

Paul Taylor

Booking: 0171-928 6363