Writing a play that involves a musician as revered as Bowie must be a daunting task – the unwavering devotion his fans hold always carries the risk of turning into anger if they feel something is unworthy of their hero. Adrian Berry partially avoids this risk by turning the focus of his play on that devotion itself, imagining the life of one young fan, Martin, and examining the role Bowie holds in his life. The result is a compelling and sometimes unbearably intense portrait of a vulnerable teenager.
From the first scene where Martin jerks around, body convulsing while discordant music plays in the background and lights flash from colour to colour, From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads creates a sense of panic. Martin’s instability gives the piece an edge, and scenes turn from amusing to traumatic with disarming speed. While other characters are caricatured, seen through Martin’s teenage eyes, his own characterisation is excellent, with Alex Walton capturing his anxieties with a painful accuracy – one particular meltdown scene is incredibly affecting. The audience glimpses his perspective, one where the rest of the world is hostile and hopeless. The mood doesn’t really lighten throughout; From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is absolutely not a simple, fulfilling portrayal of recovery – the piece smartly sidestepping notions of rescue by an adored idol.
The play also sidesteps the obvious in its treatment of Martin’s eating disorder, which is done with sensitivity. It is a central issue of the play, but not its singular focus, and Berry shows the extent to which it is a facet of Martin’s overall vulnerability. Myths about eating disorders and men are criticised; in one scene, Martin mocks the “lazy” interpretations of his illness, irritated at the presumption that his deviation from normal masculine behaviour means that he is gay.
The play is long for a Fringe show, but Walton holds the audience’s attention as he takes on a variety of roles as Martin meets different characters. There is some great sound design, with Bowie’s songs expertly twisted to fit scenes; Starman turns discordant and terrifying. Towards the end, a quest around London helps give the play shape, but feels somewhat contrived. There is also something about the setting that just doesn’t ring true as contemporary; Martin’s world smells of the 1980s. Berry’s rather implausible choice to give him no phone contributes to this – surely in the contemporary world, an obsessive Bowie fan would be likely to be particularly internet-focussed.
A difficult play to sum up; a difficult, if rewarding, play to watch. Berry and Walton deserve praise for their creation of a character who is so vivid as to make Bowie a mere background object.