As a freelance theatre and cultural reviewer in London, I am always seeking the ‘slightly off’ arena of theatric experiences that could never play the West End or the UK big-house circuit - I have a hearty constitution and no fear of experimentation, provided said experiment is genuinely unique.
Bingo! In October, a well-known five-star luxury hotel with a small ‘Residents Only’ private cocktail room, quietly announced via the (much more relied on here than in the USA) ‘Concierge Telegraph’, a slang name for the cultural activities in-the-know dispatch so ‘hot & hard’ a draw, one needs either to have an inside connection or a top-drawer Concierge to do the down and dirty of securing tickets. Don’t bother Googling it as this masterly disguised dissemination network is harder to break into than the Enigma Code.
A tiny sitting room with a horseshoe-shaped mini-bar, tables and overstuffed chairs, of which when full holds 45 hotel resident and in-the-knowers, was THE hot ticket in London’s Mayfair region for six performances only of ‘What Could Go Wrong?’, a 75-minute evening with diarist David Vass performing the material he had penned and saved in over 60 dairies these past 50 years.
I am still in shock and wonder at what I witnessed, in the best way. The entertainment was as rich, innovative, and rewarding as a nine-course chef’s dinner at a four Michelin star restaurant, which in the UK patrons wait as long as a year to get a table. While that experience comes in at around 650 GBPs not including wine, the show I saw was 25 Pounds Sterling and with the promise that a portion of the proceeds after costs would be donated to a local cultural non-profit. The diarist insists on this caveat for every venue he plays in the United States, the UK and Australia. A decent chap indeed.
David Vass. That’s his name, and while a few seats on the scalpers black market went for as much as 200 per, much of the audience could have come by tube, carriage or Bentley. It was a Noah’s Arc of those of us who live in London – some with servants and some who are servants. The unmarked side door off the hotel lobby opened 20 minutes prior to the start time of 20:00, a ‘private engagement’ sign and a burly tuxedoed security person kept a keen eye for crashers and served as ticket taker. Two waitstaff, livery dress plus long white aprons, and an apple-cheeked elder woman who looked like she had enjoyed tasting all of her libation’s pre-show, kept the room, shall we say, lubricated throughout the evening.
I cannot say much about the show without saying everything about the show, which would be terribly unfair in case you ever have the opportunity to see the show (lucky you, honest). It was unlike anything I have ever seen: succinct self-depreciating humour, real stories of an amazing life (Vass says ‘he happened to be at the right places at the right times’, one of his many understatements), and much of it in strip clubs, seedy cabarets and rough trade arenas, before turning his wit to show business realities about celebrities and personalities he worked with as a technical director, road manager and/or lighting and sound designer. His reputation within the (then called record industry or impossible to handle ‘ego circuit’) was that he could get anyone on stage in any condition and cull the show out of them and be paid the performance fee mainly in cash from someone who looked suspiciously like ‘Harry the Horse’. Be they sober, drunk, high, shot-up, angry with management or plain shell-shocked from years of ups and downs (top billing and no billing), he ring-mastered the performances of a who’s who of legends, and never talked about it until now - he said to me “well, they’re all dead now but one so they can’t have me done in” – his attempt I suppose from watching My Fair Lady too many times at trying to sound British. In a brief after show interview (Vass does not like interviews; he says ‘everything you need to know about me and my life is in my 75-minute show and how I wish everyone learned to edit their life’s stories as I have learned, because otherwise the dinner parties one attends never end’) I was gob smacked at his offstage honesty, every bit as genuine as he onstage material.
I laughed so hard I confess to putting a serviette over my crotch at one point as it was a wee bit wet, I cried the kinds of tears that cleanse and sadden and I remained astounded that a human could be that candid and real about a life with more slips and slides than an Olympian long-distance skier. One story in particular (stories = what he calls the chapters of his diaries, the basis of his material from 1957 thru 1985) which he references as ‘the strawberry story’ was considered by some attendees to be so offensive they walked out (4 to be exact). His tag line for the entertainment is “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll demand a refund!” And he has that damn straight. It’s not pornographic and it is not rude, but it is unabashedly rough, blue, adult material. At last, a show for us grown-ups – imagine! A hero’s medal to David Vass, diarist and storyteller, for wringing the humanity out of part one of his life and sharing it with us without a hint of embarrassment or shame. His is a brilliant, masterful and fully realized performance. He implies if this endeavour is a success, he will use his remaining dairies to cobble a part two. At 71, I hope he hurries. If you can find this show, see it. You may not like it but see it. It will change your life in some way; it changed mine and I am not an easy touch. Try for a small venue, the intimacy of the evening is an important part of the ambiance. A two-thumbs-up ‘Bravo!’ for this brilliant, brave man.
www.whatcouldgowrong-theplay.com Hugh M. Langford, Cultural and Theatre Critic-At-Large, London