Mind the Gap: On the Verge
Joe McConnell reviews Jez Colborne's epic journey
Jez Colborne (aka J C Jamma) has performed in and created music for a number of productions by Bradford-based theatre company, 'Mind the Gap' In 2003, he won the European Song Contest for Disabled Artists. Directed by Tim Wheeler and scripted by Mike Kenny, 'On the verge' recreates Jez's 3-week journey down the legendary Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles, on the back of a Harley Davidson. A solo dramatic and musical performance from Jez, interacts with wide-screen film footage (made by Jonathan Bentley) recording the journey.
In the footsteps of Steinbeck and Kerouac, Jez sets off in search of America. He asks nearly everyone he meets what it means to be American. This is skilfully reenacted through a series of monologues and two-part sketches tightly woven together with songs. At first there seems to be a great deal of eulogising of the American way of life as Jez's interviewees (with one exception) unanimously extol the US as the land of freedom and democracy.
In the light of the current chapter of history in which we are living, this may jar a bit. However, just when you might think this is becoming a rose-tinted song of praise to the US, we get a seriously scary and brilliantly evoked vision of a gun-crazy cop. This is followed by a sharp criticism of the enormous waste produced by mass consumerism. A wise transvestite also gives a more critical view of the US's interference on the world arena.
The show culminates in a visit to Ellis Island where Jez learns that, throughout the era of mass immigration, learning disabled people who failed IQ tests were denied entry to the US and repatriated. Jez questions the American Dream and leaves you feeling that there might be more irony in 'On the verge' than what first seems apparent.
Jez's performance throughout the show is characterised by great timing and his highly engaging brand of storytelling. The contrast he draws between the discrimination he has experienced in Britain and the apparent openness of average Americans is at once hilarious and thought-provoking. One of the high points is his interview with an artist who has created a forest out of found bottles. Jez's self-identification as an outsider artist (On the verge) is a powerful statement for disability arts.
Through 'On the verge', Jez clearly emerges as a highly talented and inspired live musician both as a vocalist and on keyboard and harmonica. The show also showcases his undeniable talent as a composer. The quality of his performance leaves you wishing that there were at least a few more songs in the line-up. Four original compositions are sandwiched between bold high octane covers of Bobby Troupe's 'Route 66' and Mars Bonfire's 'Born to be wild'. The four numbers composed by Jez each differ from one another in style and mood but share the singer's distinctively sensual gravely voice. 'On the road' has a captivating honky tonk piano blues treatment. 'Highway thunder' is a hard rock hymn to the elements in which Jez confronts his fear of storms. 'Nobodies home' - a tribute to Las Vegas (Disneyland for grown-ups) - takes on the style of a number from a Broadway musical.'American dream' is a rock-driven torch song lament and achieves a haunting quality, which lingers with you long after the show.
Jez Colborne's performance deserves a far wider audience than the one which turned out at Croydon Clocktower. Hopefully this will improve at other venues on the tour. We should do far more to support our live artists by going out and seeing them perform.