Chet Baker: Hero and Heroin…

Last Friday I went to see A Funny Valentine at The Citizens Theatre armed only with the knowledge that it was a play about Chet Baker. Luckily Mike Maran’s production focused as much on the music as his life story, and the two worked well together. Set in the intimate Circle Theatre the stage was simple; a piano, a jail house window and the white wall of the Italian town of Lucca where locals and fans would gather to hear Baker play through the bars of his prison cell (he was imprisoned there for 18 months in 1961 on drug charges, and this time and setting provide the base for the play).
Maran takes the mythology and the facts of Chet Baker’s life, and blends them together to great effect, making the audience realise that the ‘truth’ of the story doesn’t matter, it is all in the telling. The music was provided by David Milligan on the piano and Colin Steele who had the unenviable task of replicating the smooth trumpet of Baker. Both of them created the mood with ease, and it is a little churlish of me to say that Steele struggled to replicate the soft and low sound of the later Baker. Who could? It would have been unreasonable to ask the trumpeter to have his teeth removed and dentures fitted just to achieve the authentic sound that Baker’s dental troubles apparently lent to his playing. Here is a short clip from the play:
Looking at the other productions that Maran has been involved with, which includes a version of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, the one that jumps out at me is a play called Did You Used to be R.D. Laing. Laing was one of Scotland’s great intellectuals of the last century. A psychiatrist who, influenced by theories of existentialism, went against the perceived wisdom of the day, and his 1960 book The Divided Self is a brilliant, and digestible, look at theories of mental health and the individual. Laing is often quoted as saying that the true individual will always be viewed with suspicion by a society who necessarily wants to promote objective conformity, therefore we are too willing to label people as mentally ill when they refuse to conform. Here he is talking about, what he calls, the politics of psychology where he briefly tackles the central argument of his theories:

Like Baker, Laing struggled with alcoholism and depression, but was also an accomplished musician with his instrument being the piano. It seems that it is the darker and dangerous side of life, preferably with a melodic soundtrack, that Maran is drawn to.

I had never heard of Mike Maran or his work, but I’ll be looking out for it in future. Theatre that walks the tightrope of success and failure is often more interesting than tight, no risk, productions which may entertain but can leave you five minutes into the bar. A Funny Valentine had us chatting about its pros and cons well into the night, and the verdict was a thumbs up. But with that music, how could it fail?

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