Thursday, 10 March 2016

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Off to London's The Young Vic to see If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a new show starring Jane Horrocks. I remember seeing some posters for it. Is it a compilation album? A club night? A play? In fact it's an hour of Jane Horrocks singing post-punk / new wave covers plus some dancing. The thought of Jane Horrocks belting out Gang of Four's "Anthrax" and Joy Division's "Isolation" appealed to me, so I decided to go. And so I went. Beware men who dream during the day, especially if they are driving at the time.

Who would have thought that Jane Horrocks had a passion for post-punk? Given that this was the opening night, would something go wrong? How would she do "Anthrax"? These questions and more bothered me. "Questions, always questions, I'll just speak in slow motion."

Those posters, originally shot for this blog post

"Anthrax" has an unusual structure. It's basically a rap duet, but dour and shouty because Gang of Four were a bunch of Marxists. The two vocalists don't try to harmonise, they just deliver a pair of independent texts - one in the left speaker, one in the right - that intersect only briefly. How would Jane Horrocks pull it off? There's only one Jane Horrocks. Would she use some kind of echo machine? A second singer? Backing tapes? As it turned out she didn't bother but I will explain in the fullness of time.

Jane Horrocks has had an unusual career. She is a RADA-trained dramatic actor who began her theatrical career peeing on stage in an avant-garde production of Macbeth. Sadly for Shakespeare she was cursed with a tiny body and a squeaky Lancashire accent which is unfortunate because very few of Shakespeare's plays are set in the North of England. Writing in The Guardian in 1996, when Jane Horrocks was a grown woman, Simon Hattenstone talked about her "rag-doll body" and pointed out that "despite being well into womanhood you can't help thinking of her as a girl. … Her clothes look as if they are sitting on a hanger rather than flesh and bone." He was a shit writer back then and hasn't got any better.

Trapped in a stunted body and afflicted with a Northern accent, Jane Horrocks was doomed to character parts. But there was a plan B. Despite being tiny she has a massive singing voice, and so while she was typecast as bubbly and/or bulmic northerners on the big and small screens she built a parallel career as a torch singer. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was written for her. I learn from the internet that there were plans to have Gwyneth Paltrow star in the film version, but good sense prevailed. It didn't quite make her an international megastar - there's a sense that her channelling of Liza Minelli and Marlene Dietrich is clever mimicry rather than genuine passion - but the idea of Horrocks turning her instrument to post-punk is intriguing.

Now Jane Horrocks is 52! She is roughly the same age as the likes of Helena Bonham Carter and Tara Fitzgerald, but seems much younger. Would I do her? Hell yes. For most of the gig she wears yoga pants, and I'm not complaining. She is exactly the right age to have been a Joy Division trufan, although as far as I can tell she never saw them live. Kiss Me has an esoteric tracklist that suggests she really did enjoy this kind of music and isn't just pretending (you have to be careful with actors, they lie a lot).

This is where it happened

It's billed as a mixture of gig and theatrical production. In practice this means that there are dancers on the stage doing their thing while Horrocks belts out "What Do I Get" and "Empire State Human". I don't know enough about dance to pass judgement. The dancers didn't fall over, none of them wet themselves visibly, they didn't distract from Horrocks' singing. There is also a band that emerges from the back of the stage periodically, consisting of some old blokes on guitars, a younger bloke on the drums, and a foxy lady keyboardist a la The Fall. The audience itself was mostly older people who perhaps were expecting "Alabama Song" and "Goldfinger", but then again post-punk-rockers *are* old people, aren't they? No-one took pictures of the gig with their mobile phones because this is the Young Vic, dammit.

The band have nothing to be ashamed of. I have no idea who they are but they're loud and tight. They've worked up some interesting arrangements. "What Do I Get" is a slow ballad, "Isolation" is slowed down as well, although not as much. There's a distinct metal edge to the music whereas the originals tended to have scratchy, angular guitar. The Smiths' "I Know it's Over" is the big spotlight-on-the-star number, although I was ambivalent about it. Overall the show is entertaining but I'm not sure what Horrocks was going for. "I Know it's Over" is basically high camp, but although Horrocks' rendition evokes camp towards the end I'm not sure it was intentional. The show doesn't cut to the emotional core of the material and overall I felt that it was simply a means of giving Jane Horrocks something to do, rather than something that absolutely needed to exist; and yet it was entertaining, so what's the problem? I single out "I Know it's Over" because it is presented as the dramatic high point of the narrative, but there's no narrative and no drama so it falls a bit flat.

And anyway I'm not sure there is an emotional core to "Empire State Human" or "My New House". The early Human League was a bunch of enthusiastic blokes with subtly different musical tastes who loved futurism; if they were interested in the mundane reality of life in late-70s Britain they didn't let it show in their music. Ditto The Fall, who had their own agenda, and the Buzzcocks, who were self-consciously theatrical, a throwback to the soulless-but-soulful assembly-line pop of the Motown era. There was a self-conscious element to post-punk that defies social analysis.

"Hot on the Heels of Love" was a missed opportunity. It was too short and didn't build into the full song. Instead it segues into "My New House", which presents Jane Horrocks as a sexy dominatrix although alas she didn't put on a tight latex corset plus suspenders and really tall high heels and latex stockings and one of those peplum skirts and a peaked cap and long, long latex opera gloves that cover her entire arms, as if she was a plastic sculpture, an inverse of the Venus de Milo, for example. I wish they had swapped the two around; "Heels of Love" is intense. The programme lists New Order's "Temptation", but I didn't recognise it. I'm not sure if it was dropped or if the arrangement was completely rewritten. I was expecting it to be played at the encore, but there wasn't an encore.

How did Horrocks do "Anthrax"? She cheats a bit, delivering the left half of the monologue at the beginning and a second monologue at the end of the show. If I had recorded the sound I could marry the two halves up, but I didn't so I can't. Was it any good? Was the show any good? I'm in two minds. As an arty dance piece with musical accompaniment it doesn't work at all. The dancing adds nothing to the music, the sets and presentation are smart but seem unrelated to the songs. Despite being the opening night, nothing seemed amiss; I doubt that sharper performances would make the dancing work. As a straightforward set of cover songs it works really well and made me wish that they had simply packed in more hits and made the show half an hour longer. Horrocks has a splendid post-punk-style voice, deep and slightly out of tune, and I'm not being bitchy.

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me runs from 10 March to 16 April and lasts an hour. The Young Vic has toilets and a bar. They didn't search my bag. There's a supermarket just outside if you want a cheap sandwich. The end.