Monday 20 February 2023

Theatre Reflection: Danny is Fantastic (Arch 21, Brixton)


In the tucked-away artist's space of Arch 21, Valentia Place, in Brixton, lit by "pretty fairy lights," some special theatrical magic is happening. Daniel Cerqueira has been performing his show Danny is Fantastic on and off since last year, usually in three show bouts. With Cerqueira operating as a one-man band (director, producer, prop guy, pianist and performer, among other roles), the evening is a truly intimate one that's for audiences of up to 30 people - and that intimacy is essential to its impact.

Different every night, with Cerqueira wryly describing the show as "so live," Danny is Fantastic feels very much like a shared secret journey that both connects the audience to each other and brings each one of us back to ourselves. The 90 minute show zips by - inclusive but not intrusive (there's no forced audience participation but you might get a song sung to you, and you're invited to leave a "remnant" of yourself behind at the end), deeply personal but always reaching out. 

There are songs beautifully sung in Portuguese, French and English, special serenades, surreal silliness (What is behind the green door...?), skits, readings (Claude McKay and GBS on the night we attended), poems (including "Poems on One Knee"), reminding us again and again how much is out there to engage with, be inspired by. In sharing personal stories of his grandmother's life or a neighbour's encouragement in the arts, Cerqueira stirs the audience's memories, too - especially in a deeply moving and cathartic "Memento Mori" moment. Oh, Danny's a gorgeous, restorative evening. 

For  information about future shows see the website here

Friday 3 February 2023

To Live and Love Without Fear: Remembering Jason Dowler (1953-2022)


My friend Jason Dowler would have been 70 years old today. Jason died three months ago, in November, after a very difficult and painful struggle with kidney disease, and I don't think a day's gone by that I haven't thought about him since. 

In the seven years that we knew each other, a meeting with or message from Jason was always appreciated. He was a truly rejuvenating person to spend time with: funny, perceptive, reliable, loyal, exceptionally kind and thoughtful, and with a wealth of stories of trips taken, films and shows seen. 

His recall was immense and he'd seen so much that it wouldn't be stretching it too far to call him a walking encyclopedia of theatre. If you wanted to know what Kate Nelligan's performance in Plenty was like, or how it felt to be in the audience the night Maggie Smith returned to the London stage fresh from winning her Oscar, or what it was like to see Bette Midler at the Palladium in 1978  - well, ask Jason. 

He was, to his soul, what used to be called (maybe still is?) "a culture vulture": a man with a deep, abiding passion for all the arts, high and low. His responses were both intellectual and openly emotional and his tastes were wonderfully diverse - not in the quite limited, politicised concept of diversity today but in truly embracing varied traditions in languages from all over the world, whether German, Greek, Spanish or Russian music or the French chansons he so adored. He was, in the most positive sense, an English European, with strong ties to Germany since his formative time spent there as a teenager (especially his beloved Berlin) and treasured memories of multiple trips elsewhere. (Small wonder that Brexit hurt him deeply and personally.)

He supported the performers and shows he loved with multiple visits, and travels to see them far and wide, plus recommendations to friends, and enthusiastic writing on social media. Though a senior legal assistant by profession, it wouldn't be hard to mistake him for an actor himself - he had the curiosity, sensitivity, playfulness and storytelling skill of a performer.
What he was, without a doubt, was an ideal audience member. Watching something he loved, he radiated an infectious glee that could be felt by those around him and, for sure, by those on stage as well.

Fittingly, we met thanks to music. On 14 February 2015, Barb Jungr performed a Valentine's Day concert at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room. It was Jason's umpteenth time seeing Barb and my first: I was reviewing the performance for PopMatters. I remember feeling grumpy on the way to the show - late and packed trains etc etc - and then emerging completely energised and inspired by Barb's extraordinary, soul-shaking show in which songs by Bob Dylan, Noel Coward, The Isley Brothers, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Ewan MacColl and many others were brought into a thrilling dialogue through her artistry. 

Jason and I didn't actually meet that night, but after my review was published he shared the piece on social media with a nice comment about it and the show  - the kind of generous gesture that I'd later learn was typical of him. 

We became Facebook friends, and got to know each other that way. Jason was one of those people who make Facebook a kind, hospitable place - somewhere it actually seems worth spending time - whether he was posting birthday tributes to artists he loved, photos and memories of his past, or expressing his  excitement about something new he'd seen or booked to see. His posts could be lyrical, cheeky, eccentric, or reflective, and his writing was beautiful. We gradually learned that there were a lot of things that connected us, from a love of Iris Murdoch's work to a love of Mallorca,  where he'd had several blissful holidays with his late partner Charles in the  '80s and early '90s. 

We met for the first time in the summer of 2015, chatting away for hours at the National Theatre. Talking with Jason was easy, easy. There was always so much to say. That's not to suggest that we told each other everything. For all his openness he had the kind of private side I value. There were areas of his life I never knew a thing about, and vice versa. Past hurts were alluded to but never dwelt upon. And then sometimes he'd talk about his partners or others from his past as if you'd known them too, so tangible and present did they remain for him. He was, I believe, a person for whom those absent were completely and powerfully present - a source of ongoing inspiration, as he'd often say.

Of several friends he'd remark that they had taught him "to live and love without fear" and I think many would say the same about him. As a gay man born in 1953, he'd come of age at a transitional time in England, poised in a complicated way between oppression and liberation, and I believe that's crucial to who he was. (When I published a joint piece about John Schlesinger 's Sunday Bloody Sunday a couple of years ago, describing it as a life-changing film for some older friends, it was Jason that I primarily had in mind; he loved this film passionately and said it made him braver in living his life.) 

And, also like many others of his generation, he'd experienced a lot of deeply painful losses - including his two great loves - as well as his own very serious health struggles over the years. Perhaps it was those losses and difficulties that made him appreciate his friends so completely, and cherish the pleasures life offered. While he loved the cutting wit of certain performers, and had a dose of it himself, he was one of the least bitter, cynical or resentful people I've ever known. He hated meanness, selfishness, injustice. He was a good person in the Iris Murdoch sense of goodness: demonstrating through example how that quality resides in our daily choices, in how we interact with others, in the fortitude and attention with which we go about our everyday lives. 

Mostly when I think of Jason I think of theatres: from that first meeting at the NT, to other lovely times at Richmond (for the Sasha Regan Gilbert and Sullivan shows he adored), at the Other Palace (for Barb and John McDaniel's Beatles show, about which he said "I want to see that again tomorrow" as soon as it was over), at the Orange Tree (for a Giles Terera, John Robyns and Simon Lipkin cabaret), at the Globe (Meow Meow's amazing Titania in Emma Rice's Midsummer Night's Dream), at the Royal Albert Hall (Joan Baez's farewell tour in 2018). And at Crazy Coqs - where we met for the last time early last March for a performance by the Georgian-born singer Vladimir Korneev.

That was our first meeting since the pandemic and it was a joy to catch up properly.  He was physically frailer but still full of that same twinkling spirit. And transfixed by the performance, which, characteristically, he was returning to see with other friends the next evening. I remember saying goodbye to him at Piccadilly Station after the show, not knowing then that it would be our last encounter but somehow feeling motivated to give him a longer-than-usual hug and to say: "Love you".  

There'll be a show for Jason tomorrow at Phoenix Arts Club where some of the artists that he treasured and championed - Adele Anderson, John Barr, Mark Bunyan, Ada Campe, Sam Holmes, Dusty Limits, April Nicholson, Paulus, Andrew Pepper, Michael Roulston, Ben Stock and Sarah-Louise Young will perform in tribute to him, the proceeds going to Dignity in Dying.  I'm in Poland so sadly can't be there, but I can think of no more fitting way than this show to honour a true lover of the arts who, with his kindness and joy and wisdom, touched the lives of many of us so deeply. 

At his funeral service in December, following a beautiful eulogy from his close friend David Cade, these words from a letter he'd received from Jason were quoted:  

"There are no real goodbyes. There is no ending  to any of this. My gratitude is immeasurable and uncontainable. And for all the golden years of times gone by, it is today, these times - now -  that are the best of times, because we are still here and that is worth celebrating every day." 

Thank you, dear Jason, for reminding us of that - and for everything else that you gave us. 

A Cabaret for Jason will take place at Phoenix Arts Club on 4 February 2023, at 2pm. More information here.