Jack Gelber’s The Connection at Eastside Jazz Club

freddie reddI have always wanted to see The Connection, the innovative play written by Jack Gelber and first produced in New York’s Living Theatre in July 1959 and which includes a score written especially for the play by pianist Freddie Redd.  Redd’s quartet with Jackie Maclean on alto sax, Michael Mattos on double bass and Larry Ritchie on drums appeared in the original production and on tour.  The play appeared in London in 1961 and people were still talking about it in 1962 when I went up to university in London.

So I was excited to learn that it was being performed in the Eastside Jazz Club with acting and jazz students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire which now houses Birmingham City University’s acting courses as well as the music courses.  There have been seven performances so far including the one I attended this afternoon (Sunday) and there are three performances this week.  It seems to be selling out for every performance, so I was glad to have booked in advance.

The connection posterThe play tells the story of four heroin addicts plus four musicians, also addicts, waiting for a fix.    There is also a play within a play as two film producers plus two cameramen are making a documentary about the addicts.  I have to admit that I found this rather confusing at first with the two producers occasionally interrupting the dialogue to admonish the addicts to put more into their performances.  Nonetheless, the play paints a convincingly harrowing picture of four addicts and their inability to escape from their habit and the tension that builds up between them as they become more desperate for their fix.  The music written for the play by Freddie Redd comes in at specific moments; it underpins the action and adds to the tension of the piece.  The final piece O.D., for example, links very effectively to Leach’s near fatal overdose.

The tension in the situation of the play builds up gradually through Act 1 and quite dramatically in Act 2 when Cowboy, the dealer, arrives with the heroin and each addict goes into the bathroom to get their fix and Leach nearly kills himself with an overdose.  They are eventually joined in getting a fix by one of the directors of the documentary and one of the cameramen.  The music complements the action brilliantly and is performed with great panache by Liam Brennan on alto sax, Cameron Sheehy on piano, Louis Stringer on bass and Andrew Duncan on drums.  The latter played in a Peaky Blinders cap!   In the original play the musicians are listed with their real names as they wanted to get attention for the music; here the four students just have the first names of the original band, so that, for example, Liam Brennan is Jackie, Cameron Sheehy Freddie, etc.

I really enjoyed the play and the performance.  I loved the way the actors were on stage and Cameron was playing the piano as we entered the club.  That immediately created an atmosphere.  I also enjoyed the way that the actors interacted with the audience at certain points.  My only concerns were that on occasion I had difficulty in following what the actors were saying; either they were talking too quietly or sometimes too fast.  I also wonder about the role in the play of Sister Salvation, the Salvation Army officer who arrives with Cowboy, the dealer, seemingly to enable Cowboy to get away from a couple of inquisitive police officers.  She seems unaware of what is going on, and eventually accuses the addicts of drunkenness on the basis of the number of empty wine bottles in the bathroom.  I am not sure what the point of her character is and what role she plays.  Her character does, however, lead into one the most attractive of Redd’s tunes, simply Sister Salvation.

I really applaud this collaboration between the acting and jazz students at the Conservatoire and the direction of Kristine Landon Smith and the musical direction of John O’Gallagher.  I look forward to future activity.

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