Janis Joplin was just a girl from Texas. And an internationally acclaimed rock, soul and blues singer and songwriter. She died of an overdose, aged 27. Janis Joplin: Full Tilt is Peter Arnott‘s take on her too short life. It’s a cracking script; full of insight, compassion, humour and pathos. And it’s funny. For all that Joplin’s life didn’t contain a whole lot of joy, her sharp, funny, wry observations keep this from being an exercise in wallowing regret. Joplin’s songs are kept centre stage and Angie Darcy as Joplin is a tour de force.
The play’s title is taken from the name of Joplin’s band in the latter days of her career but it also beautifully epitomises her attitude to life in this telling of her tale. Growing up in a white suburb in Texas in the 1950s, segregation was rife and Joplin repeatedly found herself in trouble for railing against prejudice and discrimination. Bullied horribly at school for her so-called liberal attitudes, she developed a steely determination that, Arnott suggests, helped to sustain her all too short musical career. If I don’t like something, she says, I’ll try to change it – and “I’ll just keep throwing myself against the world like a rock”. It’s a poignant rallying cry for an artist who ultimately threw herself too hard and lost her way in the black hole of self doubt and addiction.
The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and has been playing to packed houses since, for good reason. The biography is fascinating, carefully directed by Cora Bisset. Darcy cackles and croons her way through her life story. The costumes plunge the audience straight back into the sixties – carefully crafted facial hair, Afghan coats and beads galore. But the music is the show stopper. Bissett serves up a four piece band: keyboard, drums, bass and lead guitar. Not only do the musicians serve up stellar performances, complete with spine tingling guitar riffs and a stunning piano solo turn, but they look like they’re having a ball.
Any why would they not when they have such a phenomenal voice coaxing them on? Darcy has an incredible vocal range, used to full effect through Joplin’s back catalogue. She growls, wheedles, purrs, pleads, equally comfortable, it seems, at either end of the vocal register. But she’s not just technically good – she has soul, in spadeloads. Her “Take Another Little Piece Of My Heart” is a painfully majestic plea for life to deal Joplin a better hand. We wish it had.