Review: 20th Century Boy, Buxton Opera House


This warts and all telling of the brief life and career of Marc Bolan and T Rex was a great success when it premiered in 2014 and this reworked version on tour through until June is well-worth catching.

Bolan (George Maguire) was born into a north London, secular Jewish family in 1947. Blessed (?) with physical beauty and personal charm he learned how to manipulate his mother Phyllis (Amy Rhiannon Worth) and other women that entered his life. Given a guitar for his 9th birthday he quickly tried to learn from early heroes such as Eddie Cochran and Cliff Richard. (The show, while essentially tragic, has some knowing jokes. Whilst James Dean and Cochran died in car crashes “Cliff will live forever”).

When still at school Bolan was in a band with singer Helen Shapiro (Kristina Lao) which was sufficient excuse for a burst of “Walkin’ back to happiness”. Never lacking in confidence or self belief Bolan was writing dozens of songs – deceptively simple but lyrically always slightly strange.

He fitted well into the culture of the summer of 1967 and his psychedelic folk songs – presented on strummed guitar and bongos (inspired by Ravi Shankar) captured the moment. From this period we only got to hear “Deborah” – I was hoping for a line or two about “Graceful fat Sheba” but you can’t have everything, and maybe some memories are better undisturbed.

Bolan was always prolific – delivering 12 albums in 10 years – and for much of his career producer Tony Visconti (Derek Hagen) was instrumental in bringing some discipline and direction to Bolan’s work. “Ride a White Swan” was the song that marked the transition from the whimsical, Tyrannosaurus Rex, to the glam rock of T Rex  and it was Visconti who prompted the switch to the electric riffing that dominated the rest of Bolan’s career.

Bolan rapidly got the success and adulation that he said he wanted, only to find that he could not manage it. His relationship with his wife June (Sarah Moss) quickly deteriorated as he began an affair with singer Gloria Jones (Ellena Vincent). That relationship was then threatened by his alcohol and substance abuse. His work with Visconti and some long-standing band members also ended in some acrimony.

In a brief period Bolan produced a clutch of classic rock songs – “Get It On”, “Hot Love” and “Children of the Revolution” notably – but in the context of this show it is the ballads “Cosmic Dancer” and “Teenage Dream” that stand out. What proved to be his final album “Dandy in the Underworld” was something of a return to form after some lacklustre years.

One of Bolan’s last performances was with friend David Bowie – together they sang “Heroes”. A poignant reminder that in the history of pop music Bowie and his songs eclipse Bolan.

The story finishes as it must with Bolan’s death in a car crash just before his 30th birthday but the show allows the music to have the last word and the hard-working cast and band returns to recap some of T Rex’s hits and the tragedy is eased away.

The musical can be seen at Buxton tonight March 21 and then at the Winding Wheel in Chesterfield from April 13-15.

Keith Savage