Review: 20th Century Boy – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Okay, a caveat to start. Being a wee toddler when Marc Bolan was at the height of success before his tragic death in 1977, the music of T.Rex has never really featured high on my list of musical choices. True the big well-known numbers appear on the radar and I’ve nothing against the music, it’s just not a band or singer I know anything about apart from those numbers.

20th Century Boy, a brand new musical that follows Marc’s son Rolan on a journey to learn more about his father’s life and music therefore seems a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into one of the most successful bands of the 1970s and their colourful lead singer.

Sadly though, despite the best efforts of a highly talented and energetic cast, this newcomer to the Bolan catalogue is still left largely in the dark.

Peter Rowe and Gary Lloyd’s book (Lloyd also directs the piece) follows an adult Rolan journeying from the USA to trace his father’s life from his childhood in the East End of London to the fateful car crash that killed him in 1977. While we follow the story of Bolan’s roots in the music business, his successes and ultimate failure to capture the American market, we never get to understand the man or what drove his outwardly arrogant persona.

Outside of the musical numbers Rowe and Lloyd’s script fails to bring this journey to life. Dialogue is clumsy, the structure predictable, and we never get an insight into the emotions or drivers of these characters.

Those familiar with the period and the music may find all this doesn’t matter but, for those coming to this as a fresh story it makes for a disjointed, confusing and somewhat unsatisfying 2 ¾ hours.

Musically, the cast excel. As Bolan himself George Maguire delivers a gripping performance, full of arrogant swagger and enormous self confidence. Donna Hines also impresses as Gloria, Rolan’s mother while there is a beautifully touching moment with Craig Storrord’s Rolan singing a duet with his father. It is this moment and a couple of other musical numbers that take flight from their original T.Rex arrangements that the material shows real potential as a stage musical – the moving Dandy In The Underworld performed as a choral eulogy to Bolan shows the potential to rearrange the well-known songs and integrate them into the drama to drive narrative, rather than have them as stand alone tribute performance like much of the show.

For Bolan and T.Rex fans, or for those willing to put aside the lack of dramatic clarity and just enjoy a tribute concert, there is much to enjoy here. For those new to the era and looking for a insight into one of the 70s most colourful and perhaps, despite his bravado, least understood performers 20th Century Boy is unlikely to provide much illumination.

It’s perhaps a show that will divide opinion for large sectors of the audience were clearly loving the show, others though, like this reviewer were sadly left cold and confused, admiring the musicality but missing the heart.

Photo: Hugo Degenhardt, Tim Bonser, George Maguire, Matthew Ashcroft and Steve Simmonds in 20th Century Boy. Picture by Mike Kwasniak

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