Imagine if Simon Cowell had drunk an entire jar of cough syrup, a really big one, and then fallen asleep in his armchair and had a nightmare that the contestants in his methodically choreographed X-Factor Bowie special had mutinied and all hell was breaking loose. Then imagine Adam Curtis filmed and edited the whole thing. It'd be hard to work out if it was good or bad but there'd certainly be elements of both. Two things at least would be very certain. The songs would be excellent and anyone watching it would be fairly damned confused.
That's pretty much how I felt watching Enda Walsh's Lazarus at the Kings Cross Theatre. I had my reservations about it when my friend Paola suggested we get tickets. The reservations were many and of many kinds. Would it be a cheap cash in on Bowie's death? That couldn't be the case as it premiered in New York in 2015 while he was still alive. Would it be too much of a jukebox musical or, conversely, would it not be enough of one, striving too hard to catch Bowie's otherness but ending up like some dreadful sixth form showcase? After all, a big part of the charm of Bowie's alien talent was that it was grounded in a very earthy, very English, geniality.
But I know when to go out and when to stay in. So with the added promise, as has become traditional with Paola, of a delicious Mexican meal in DF on Tottenham Court Road beforehand my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself sat in a surprisingly capacious temporary theatre space in the new Kings Cross development awaiting what I did not know.
The story is, roughly, a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth. Thomas Jerome Newton is still on Earth, still unable to die, and still unable to return home. He's taken to drinking gin for breakfast and raging against the non-dying of the light. Trying to work out exactly who the other characters are, or what they represent, is trickier. There's Newton's home help Elly who's not so secretly in love with him. Her angry, drunk, and jealous husband. Then there's Sophia Anna Caruso who, as Newton's 'muse', may or may not be a figment of his imagination.
The fact that sometimes the characters dress as each other and, occasionally, there's a video representation of them on stage as well as the actor means it all gets a little bewildering. Though I think that's the point. To try to convey some kind of liminal, dreamlike state. It works. Sometimes. On other occasions it either gets silly or, worse, drags a bit. What with this frankly bonkers, barely understandable, plot I was always happy when the tight-as-you-like band struck up a tune.
Michael C Hall, better known as TV's serial killing forensic analyst Dexter, plays Newton and, luckily, he's got a very good singing voice which lends itself well to Bowie's back catalogue. Not as good as Bowie himself, of course, but then who has? Amy Lennox as Elly puts in a great performance but both her and Caruso, being female, suffer a little bit with the songs. They've got great voices but Bowie's songs, him being a man and all that, do seem to lend themselves better to the male voice. Which means when Lennox and Caruso sing we veer awfully close to Disney musical territory. Disney's dream debased?
Most of the songs worked. Heroes, Always Crashing In The Same Car, All The Young Dudes, Absolute Beginners, and Where Are We Now? merit particular praise. The line in Life On Mars, 'It's on America's tortured brow / Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow' that once seemed to come from the gibberish school of cut-and-paste lyricism sounded more topical than ever.
Changes didn't quite come off and there was nowhere near enough of Sound and Vision, one of my very favourite Bowie songs. Bigger bones of contention, and a pub chat that could span several pints, were the absence of songs like Starman, Queen Bitch, Let's Dance, Space Oddity, and, for a small, but discerning, group of us, anything from the Decca years, the Anthony Newley period. Of course if they'd played every Bowie song of note we'd probably still be in the theatre now.
So. Was it the freakiest show? Not really. It probably wasn't as out there as it aspired to be although it was mostly very enjoyable. I didn't even mind that Newton's rocket looked like something Mr Spoon would fly to Button Moon in.
Was it a worthy, if unintended, eulogy for David Bowie? Probably not but how could it be? How could you, in less than two hours, convey the huge cultural wealth the man bestowed on the nation and the world? It'll take generations to unpick that.
So did it piss on the Dame's legacy? Not at all. For a start he did enough of that in his lifetime. Just think of Tin Machine and the Dancing in the Streets video with Mick Jagger. Lazarus was equal parts respectful to the canon whilst still having the balls to take a few liberties with it. For that I think Bowie would approve. He was never shy of innovation. It always seemed to me he'd rather try something new, even if it didn't come off, than rest on his laurels as an elder statesman of rock.
I could view Lazarus as a glorious failure but that'd be doing it a disservice. I'd prefer to see it as a qualified success. A bit of a mess but one that, like a carpet that someone's done something awful on, you can't help but stare at.
In 1980, in Denver, David Bowie performed as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. Well, the elephant, maan, in this room was clearly Bowie's absence. With every song you couldn't help yourself wishing to hear the ol' Goblin King wrap his inimitable lungs around them one last time but that can't, and won't, happen ever again. Truly we are floating in a most peculiar way.