Most tours involve a lot of dead time and waiting around, and this tour by Bradford’s Mind the Gap is no different. Mind the Gap is an award winning touring theatre company that works with learning disabled and non-disabled actors as equals. The people of Barnsley may know them from the wonderful intervention that was the Immovable Block, which came to Barnsley back in May to showcase the company’s many talents and also allow Barnsley’s residents to express their own creative endeavours. It was an amazing installation that broke down barriers between disabled and able-bodied people but also those perceived obstructions that anyone of usthat anybody may come cross in life.
During their weekend long stay in Barnsley, they previewed Jez Colborne’s Irresistible- Call of the Sirens, which is a musical extravaganza influenced not only by the story of Odysseus, and how he survived the sirens who used their hypnotic songs to lure sailors to their death but also of Jez’s travels in the UK, USA and China. Irresistible is an official part of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and will be appearing at Liberty festival and also the Southbank’s Unlimited Festival which features amazing work by deaf and disabled artists from around the world.
I caught up with Jez following his sound check. Also present was the company’s Artistic Director Tim Wheeler and Administrative Director Julia Skelton. Jez’s performance at The National Theatre is his first performance of his week in London. It acts as a teaser for his main show which will be happening at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 8th September.
‘I won’t get to see much,’ when I ask if there are any shows he’s looking forward to catching. ‘A lot of the time is taken up with sound checks, rehearsals and the shows themselves. I get to see some of the sights around the venue and the people.’
I wanted to know a little about Jez’s music. I started with his influences.
‘There were a few artists that influenced me when I was younger. Bob Marley was one of them. He was all about ideas of revolution and uniting people. He made you think you could change the world. That gave me a lot of ideas. I’m also influenced by some rock bands; Rage Against the Machine, Foo Fighters and even Iron Maiden.’ The idea of great front men of rock have blatantly influenced Jez and his on stage persona; from the look and the banter to the lyrics. I asked want had influenced him into becoming involved in theatre
‘I’ve always done music and I used to go gigging a lot with East Midland Shape but they went under. Luckily for me Mind the Gap needed a keyboard player, so I applied for that, got the job and it was all go from there.’
I wanted to know what Jez’s opinion of Channel’s 4’s fantastic Paralympics coverage and how it could possibly change public perception of disabled people.
‘I’m really hoping it will change the way people look at us. As a disabled person, I don’t want people to look at me as a person with a disability; I just want to be seen as a performer just as any able-bodied performer is. With that I also want to be equally criticised as a performer. I take what I do seriously. I’ve been involved in theatre acting and music for years now. Irresistible was an idea of mine about using sirens as a musical instrument instead of using it as a warning sign. I wanted to make it into something musical.’
The idea of using industrial equipment such as warning and air raid sirens reminds me of German industrial music pioneers Einsturzende Neubauten (translated as Collapsing New Buildings), who created albums and live shows from self-made music machines built from industrial material such as metal plates, drills and electronics. One famous concert at the famous Hacienda night club involed them drilling into the building’s walls, yet at the same time their music has been used to soundtrack ballets. Jez’s use of industrial sirens is a smart juxtaposition of something that seen a violent or ugly with something that is beautiful and to be enjoyed by all. ‘It turns something considered mournful into something to be celebrated,’ explains Jez.
I wondered what Jez felt about the separation of disabled and non-disabled arts and sports events.
‘Maybe both can be celebrated in one big event. After all, everybody has talent and all should be celebrated together. Why should we be separated? It would be great to integrate sport events too. Our theatre group is primarily people with disabilities but we also work with people with a-bilities.’
I said to Jez that I thought many disability arts events spend a lot of time promoting awareness of disabilities; whereas if both disabled and able-bodies arts were integrated it would be more about just telling individual stories. It must be hard trying to balance awareness and straight forward story telling.’
‘Yes, I just want to get out there and perform my music. Although my songs are political and revolution, they aren’t just about me; they can be about anybody, explains Jez.’
And that reminds me of the Immovable Block and that perfect balance of message and awareness and how that can translate more broadly as anybody’s struggle to overcoming anything which might seem at times immovable.
Jez goes on to talk about his early days. ‘I used to go on demonstrations and I would chain myself to buses, fighting for ramps to be installed for disability access. I was in a group called DAN (Disability Action Now) and I am really proud of that. Kenneth Clarke didn’t seem very happy though when we asked for ramps to be put in at his surgery. It’s very different now though but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still issues and causes to fight. There are still people out there who still think we are inferior. I have had neo-Nazis and BNP supporters shout at me in the street and yet they swear blindly that they are all for equality.’
There is obviously still fight to be had and songs to be sung for Jez. Whatever forms his songs take and whatever instruments he uses, it comes down to good old important story telling of individual’s stories and their interpretation as something universal.
And so what about his show?
As he is announced to the stage, Jez walks through the crowd like some leather-clad, fly weight boxer ready to take on the world. Shaking hands and high-fiving his audience, he kicks off his show with a Rat-Pack style show tune called In Vegas, which seems to be an ode to Jerry Springer style shallowness and losing your head and your money in sin city.
He follows that pro-claiming that he is one of the world’s best air raid siren impersonators and proceeds to bellow out a series on uncanny war-time noises. That was followed by the already familiar song Love Set Us Free, which harks back to the same traditions as many of his hero’s, Bob Marley’s songs.
However, it seems to be the last two songs in which Jez’s stage presence really comes into its own. His cover of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, from one of my all time favourite album’s Transformer, suits him down to the ground. It’s a song about the misfits, misunderstood and the misshapes of New York City and the type of song that fuses both his musical influences and his message perfectly.
He ends with a self-penned song called Dump Truck. Here, his Mick Jagger-isms really come to the fore in this song about dumping his girl in a hole in the ground. It’s reminiscent of Little Red Rooster and is funny, naughty and has the audience screaming for more, but that’s it from Jez.
He ends by making his way once more back through the audience which whether it is a conscious decision or not, seems to say, I’m one of you, which in a way says as much as his songs do.
For more information about Irresistible: Call of the Sirens visit the official Mind the Gap website. http://www.mind-the-gap.org.uk/irresistible
Catch him if you can on the following dates:
- National Theatre’s Watch This Space – Wed 5th Sep 10pm (Preview)
- National Theatre’s Watch This Space – Thu 6th Sep 6:15pm & 10pm (Preview)
- Southbank Centre, The Clore Ballroom in The Royal Festival Hall – 4pm followed by Q&A 7pm