Despite the best efforts of a transport system seemingly conspiring to prevent what should have been a straightforward journey from the heart of Kent to South West London, it was to an extremely warm welcome that we were greeted by the staff of The Tara, a theatre with a fascinating history.
The original building, erected in 1891, has served as a drapers, a Mission Hall, opticians, chiropodists and church. In 1983 Tara Arts moved there, and in 2016 the New Tara Theatre, re-built with reclaimed London bricks, Indian wood and railways sleepers, was opened as Britain's first multi-cultural theatre.
An ideal setting, then, for the launch of Robb Johnson's latest venture, Ordinary Giants, an epic song-suite which, whilst based on the life and times of his father, Ron Johnson, who grew up in West London, joined the RAF, fought in the Second World War, was shot down, but survived, was captured and then became a teacher, is also a family history which encompasses and furnishes illuminating perspectives on many of the social and political events and issues faced by ordinary people in the past one hundred years.
On the recorded release, which contains three full-length CDs, in addition to copious, informative background details and notes, (FATEA review here), there are some 30 plus performers credited, thus I was intrigued to see how Robb would approach presenting this extended piece live on stage.
The simple answer is with sheer class. Somehow managing to assemble 20 of those who appeared on the recording, (or 21, see below), must have been a feat in itself, and surely reflects the esteem in which he is held by his peers. As a result, the show lasted well over two and a bit hours and whilst not all of the 54 recorded tracks were aired, judicious selections, (by my count nigh on two-thirds, plus one short reprise), ensured that the cohesion of the source narrative maintained, thus anyone present having no prior knowledge of the recording would not have encountered a barrier to enjoying this as a stand-alone experience in its own right. Conversely, for those fortunate to already own copies, what was presented aurally was very faithful to the original.
As the lights dimmed on the hushed audience, a sole spot shining on Robb, there was an audible gasp as the resonant tones of the late, great Roy Bailey emanated from the sound system. A Land Fit for Heroes, the first of his contributions on the recent release, was received with poignant reverence, and the warmth of the extended applause at its conclusion genuinely seemed to move many of the cast, not for the first time this afternoon/evening.
As Ron's story unfolded, with frequent contextual details being provided between songs, the apposite and perceptive lyrics were delivered by a diverse group of performers, in addition to Robb himself, matching the equally eclectic range of musical styles played by the talented group of musicians.
Thus, from the, no doubt Opie-inspired, playground-rhyme simplicity of young Sam Decie's Pretty Maids In Jam Jars, through Matthew Crampton's, (as Robb's Uncle Ernie), humorous take on milk-stealing in Hang Of The Door we get to the more serious, more political, outpourings of Here Comes Mr Ghandi with vocals from Boff Whalley and Theresa Carey on washboard, followed by a spirited version of Holding Hands With Hitler, complete with wonderful tuba and trombone accompaniment, from Louise Michelle Shearer and Rory Mcleod respectively.
Changes of mood and atmosphere were frequent, for example Gentlemen Of The Chorus, a pastiche/parody of Gilbert & Sullivan, saw Matthew and Phil Odgers reduce the audience to fits of laughter before the tone changed with a run of six consecutive, thoughtful and emotive songs relating to Ron and the war. With lead vocals on these being shared, variously, between Robb, Fae Simon, Matthew and Phil, and featuring a raft of musicians, including Jenny Carr on keyboards, Rory on harmonica and Linz Maesterosa on clarinet, there was further musical colour and variety aplenty in this section of the afternoon.
There was room too for more hearty audience participation as the first half of the show came to a conclusion with Attlee For PM For Me being given the full rousing-chorus treatment by not only the entire cast, but also the enthusiastic patrons.
Part two commenced with the year being 1948, and a wonderfully emotional vocal delivery of The Parachute from Phil. Another brief contribution from Sam, and, following an explanation from Robb that he had been told at his father's funeral, by one of Ron's pupils, that their nickname for him was Nobby, it was left to Steve White to once again lead the audience in the spirited sing-along that is Nobby's Class.
An immediate change in tempo followed, initially with We'll Be Lucky, Phil's tuneful whistling introducing a perfectly judged jazzy number before Mike & Reina Reinstein accompanied by some sumptuous clarinet playing from Linz, delivered a compelling version of Bad Germans, the end of which
'So we did nothing, we followed orders, did what our leaders told us too.
We sent our children to die for freedom, we are bad Germans, just like you.
Look in this mirror'
was dramatically chilling in its effect.
Another change of mood and musical style saw the final two songs on the second disc being performed. With Robb referencing some of the key events in his childhood, such as Kennedy and The Beatles, firstly in the doo wop-emulating Ovaltine¸ and then with Love And Comprehensives, reflecting Ron's deep passion for comprehensive education, the musicians and singers really let rip on a song which is up there with the best of Neil Innes and The Rutles' parodies of The Beatles. Led by Tracey Chapman's vocals, with splendid solo electric guitar from Ali Gavan¸ (who also recorded and mixed the CD), there was, once again, maximum vocal audience participation.
Thus the final part of the performance related to the third CD, i.e. the years 1970 - 2018. Skipping to 1982, the year of Ron's retirement as Headmaster of Grove Park Primary School, we were highly entertained by Roger Stevens, in a spoken piece, before Robb gave a short reprise of Where You Can Go (Depends Where You Come From). Then it was straight into the reggae-tinged Brown & Black In The Union Jack, another song which had the room rocking.
A word or two of recognition and respect here for Robb's regular rhythm section. Unobtrusive at the rear of the stage, John Forrester, played upright and electric bass flawlessly throughout, whilst Robb's son Arvin Johnson was immaculate on drums/percussion. With regards to their contribution, along with that the other musicians, it is rare to hear musical accompaniment played in such a synergistic manner, it was indeed judged to perfection.
Matthew's slow, unhurried End Of The Day contrasted with Steve's jaunty end-of-pier, almost Chas 'n' Dave sounding, Who Buggered Bognor, before Maddy Carty delivered a sensitive lead vocal on Slow Progess 2009, which addressed the dole, austerity, New Labour and factory closures.
The penultimate song of the half, The Valediction was delivered, initially, by Phil's beautiful vocal solo before crashing cymbals, drums and electric guitar swirled around the theatre majestically. It would be invidious to try to pick any one, individual, song to demonstrate the creative-writing prowess, and power, that Robb possesses, but this would be up there with them.
With the full cast assembled for the final, euphoric, offering, the title track itself,
Ordinary Giants, with its compelling, uplifting chorus
'Hold the door, we're coming through'
resonated throughout the room long after the final note.
I cannot remember the last time I was at an event when the entire audience, without exception, rose to their feet with such enthusiasm in admiration and appreciation. From my position Robb appeared visibly moved by the response, as indeed, once again, were the cast. Quite rightly too.
I have been fortunate, over the past year, to attend performances of The Transports, and, more recently, The Ballads of Child Migration, both highly acclaimed song-suites. I would proffer that tonight's performance is on a par with them, in terms not only of the quality of the song-writing, musicianship and entertainment value, but also the cultural and social importance of its subject matter. This production will endure long in my memory.
It is to be hoped that this important piece of work will be staged again in some form, although the financial implications associated with such a large cast are fully appreciated. Perhaps a variation or repeat of the three-hander preview recorded earlier this year?
In the meantime, I would urge the purchasing of multiple copies of the triple CD box set, one to keep, several to give as gifts. Ordinary Giants is a exceptional piece of work, reflecting the very best of one of our foremost songwriters, with outstanding performances of songs that will captivate, entrance, gladden, sadden and uplift in equal measure.
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