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Bad Jazz - Gordon Anderson Goes From The League of Gentlemen to ATC

When The League Of Gentleman took the live version of their cult TV comedy show out on tour, it was a sell-out. Not in the sort of way aging punks might consider them to be either. Because, while it regularly played 3000-seat auditoriums, the dark edge born of 1970s British horror flicks that made it so unique remained uncompromised. Watching it in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, director Gordon Anderson, whose production of Robert Farquhar’s equally off-kilter play, Bad Jazz, arrives at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre this week, was heartened to see ideas he recognised from years before anyone made the big time.

“Me and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith from The League Of Gentlemen ran a theatre company for five years,” Anderson, who also directs The Catherine Tate Show, as well as Channel Five’s Suburban Shootout, is keen to point out, “and there were things going on then that ended up playing a big part in The League Of Gentlemen. I remember us taking a show to The Finborough and them being quite snotty about it because they had a certain idea of what a play should or shouldn’t do. So I do think it’s a shame theatre neglects material like that, especially when we were being rejected by this 40-seat theatre above a pub, then with more or less the same material went on to win the Golden Rose of Montreaux.”

Bad Jazz may not get as far as Montreaux, but if there was any justice, or even a whiff of cult celebrity Anderson’s television work is attached to, Farquhar’s scabrously funny critique of artistic taboos in a fame-hungry anything goes climate would be filling major civic venues. Set on the rehearsal room floor of a consciously cutting-edge theatre company, the work everyone involved is so desperate to be a hit may involve unsimulated oral sex, but with some very fragile egos involved, what goes on backstage proves equally outrageous.

Obvious reference points for such self-referential shenanigans are Michael Frayn’s behind-the-scenes farces, Noises Off and Joe Orton’s more swingingly outrageous What The Butler Saw. The censorship imposed by guidelines laid down by the Lord Chamberlain, however, curtailed the wilder excesses of Orton’s own brand of near-the-knuckle populism. In today’s climate, real-life penetration has been seen in mainstream cinemas in both Michael Winterbottom’s Seven Songs and Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy. On stage too, even the Edinburgh International Festival got in on the act last year by way of Catalan maverick Calixto Bieito’s version of Michel Houllebecq’s novel, Platform, when it opened with big-screen displays of hardcore porn. Given Bad Jazz’s satirical inclinations then, how far exactly can you go?

“It’s a very naughty play,” Anderson says of Bad Jazz on a break from editing Catherine Tate’s contribution to Comic Relief. “It’s very provocative, and is dealing primarily with what people’s boundaries are. We can now see people eating kangaroo testicles in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here on prime time television rather than tucked away in the middle of the night. One of the things that struck me about Bad Jazz is that the characters in it are all doomed optimists. 20 years ago people at the sharp end of theatre which they occupy would be involved in political theatre or whatever, but now all that’s slid into the sea and has been replaced by this desperate ambition for fame. This play looks at that, but never takes itself too seriously, and is I suppose more playfully provocative.”

Bad Jazz is co-produced by Plymouth’s Drum Theatre, whose own track record of forward-thinking theatre can be recognised by their role as being the first company to put faith in what became Anthony Neilson’s hit, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia. Farquhar’s play will also mark Anderson’s final show as artistic director of ATC. Over his five-year tenure he’s introduced UK audiences to some of the international stage’s less sung voices, including Arabian Night by German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig and, from America, last year’s brilliant A Brief History Of Helen Of Troy by Mark Schultz. All the work has, in different ways, explored fractured relationships occupying abnormal landscapes.

This was defined early on in Anderson’s production of French enfant terrible Bernard-Marie Koltes’ In The Solitude Of Cottonfields. This depiction implied exchanges had been first produced in a blistering Edinburgh International Festival by Patrice Chereau, also responsible for the explicit depiction of fellatio in Intimacy. In this way Bad Jazz completes a creative circle for Anderson, who now passes the baton to incoming director Bijan Sheibani.

“I like things that are original,” Anderson says of a decidedly skewed but oddly accessible body of work he plans to continue as a freelance director both onstage and TV. I feel that with a lot of theatre you know exactly what kind of evening you’re in for, and I think that’s a shame, so I always like to pick things that are unpredictable in some way. Like me, Robert Farquhar’s interested in populist traditions, but also wants to stretch his writing. As Joe Orton knew, getting big audiences and making people laugh aren’t mutually exclusive to that.”

One might be advised in Bad Jazz’s case, then, to suck on it and see.

Bad Jazz, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed-Sat

The Herald, March 22nd 2007

ends

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