He deserves this, old Syd. A creative fountain which couldn’t be capped, a musical flame that burnt too bright too fast, Pink Floyd’s original driving force Syd Barrett ought to have his story told in this affectionate, light-spirited and non-judgmental way, rather than being allowed to drift into history as “that oddball recluse wot used to be in the Floyd”. Alan Bissett‘s play, with regular collaborator Sacha Kyle directing, allows Syd’s beauty both as a human and a musician to shine.
Rock music is, of course, littered with talents who bowed out young. In the main, though, it was the grave that intervened, hedonistic excess or escapism resulting in that final silencing of inner demons. Barrett pretty much stands alone as someone who departed from the scene, but not from this mortal coil. Over too few years in the late 60s/early 70s, he gave us some glorious psychadelic musical trips, some gorgeous eccentric whimsy, and, if we’re honest, some tuneless guff, then shut up shop and made like a hermit in his Cambridge home, amid speculation and clear evidence his fragile psyche had been wrecked by the acid or the spotlight. Wisely, this play does not attempt to explain what happened – who can ever know the inner workings of someone else’s mind? – but instead puts together the well-known stories about the man in a framework that captures his spirit and the spirit of the times.
When lead man Euan Cuthbertson arrives on stage and first casts his eyes up from the floor, it’s uncanny. He’s very Syd – hollowed out, but full of wonder. Barrett’s eyes carried myriad stories, and Cuthbertson grasps that fully. Time is taken to establish Barrett’s key creative influences early on. A snippet from Wind In The Willows – specifically the chapter which begat Floyd’s first album title, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – reveals his childlike side. His pastoral leanings are confirmed by a lazy riverside chat with childhood chum and future bandmate, Roger Waters. Later, a chemically enhanced TV interview dissolves into Edward Lear-esque gibberish, placing Barrett in the pantheon of creative English eccentrics.
Strange then, given how effective Cuthbertson is, that his bandmates should feel so plasticky at first appearance, a pastiche of groovy 60s-dom in Fred from Scooby Doo‘s cast-offs and fancy dress shop wigs. Fortunately, the naff effect does wear off as the show progresses.
Andrew John Tait’s Roger Waters is particularly hard to get with initially. The strut and the self-regard is very mannered. But he’s been given a meaty role, trying to square the unbounded ambition that eventually defined Floyd with simple concern for Syd, and ends up very effective. A scene where he gets protective of a broken Syd at an American TV filming provokes a memorable line from a stagehand – “run down don’t cut it on the Pat Boone show!” There’s also much to like about Waters’ scene with Syd’s psychiatrist. The realisation that someone might not be enjoying success the way he does is a slow, bewildering one for Waters.
Rick Wright (Ewan Petrie) is by far the most sensitive to Syd, but Bissett does well to establish him as a weaker personality than the others, easy to please and quick to back down. In one telling moment, he orders a Campari (Waters – brown ale, Nick Mason – scotch) only to be persuaded to partake of something a little stronger. A more dominant Wright might have saved Syd in the band, but would have scuppered Floyd’s globe-straddling future.
Mason (David James Kirkwood) is jovial and easy-going. You’d go for a drink with him; you wouldn’t want him to save you from a mental breakdown. Kirkwood has an air of Kevin Eldon about him, which is all to the good, although the fright wig is a distraction.
The tragedy and the enigma of Syd is that the transcendence of some of his music is there for all to see, but his anguish was a solitary one. In the gap in between, people will always insert their own interpretations. For every affectionate homage – see the Television Personalities’ I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives for example – there was far more in the way of voyeuristic delight at a reclusive freak. One imagines things must have got much blacker for the man than would be fitting to show here. The conclusion that can be drawn from this play, though, is an important one: whatever our personal feelings about “what might have been”, this was Syd’s life to live. If he found some sort of peace in his late-life Cambridge solitude, that’s enough.