So, one of the things I learned last night was that starting statements with the word “so” has the effect of making the speaker appear to be an expert in their field. So, while this may seem apropos of nothing in particular it is entirely germane. For nearly three months now the Footprints festival has kept the flag flying for theatre in central London and meant that the tiny Jermyn Street venue has been punching well above its weight. I’ve seen about a dozen or so of the over 40 shows on offer and what astonishing breadth has been on display. From full productions to intimate cabaret the one consistent feature thanks to the requirements of social distancing, has been the minimal casts; indeed, well over half the pieces have been solo performances. It was appropriate then that for my last planned virtual visit should be to something which falls firmly within that category and rounded off proceedings with a bang… or rather a shebang.
So, The Whole Shebang is actor/writer/philosopher/raconteur/lay scientist Jack Klaff’s account of his time in a scientific think tank in Brussels which draws in some personal history and explores some really big ideas. The show does not have a beginning. That’s not me being critical, it’s Klaff’s self-assessment and he is, of course, absolutely right. Shambling onto the stage resembling a latter day Biblical patriarch the piece, does not so much begin as start (there is a difference). From this low key opening we are given a road map of the structure of the show – which at least demonstrates that there is a plan – and then Klaff sets out to elucidate upon this and draw parallels to things that have happened in his own life and in the world of science. In the course of the next 75 minutes we examine genetics, computer technology, personal relationships, the fault line between the sciences and the arts and a host of other stuff. The pandemic inevitably gets a mention, reference to the Olympics is made and we are left in no doubt about the performer’s anti-Brexit credentials; as none of these would have been even a glimmer on the horizon 20 years ago there’s obviously a healthy dose of improvisation going on as well. There’s quite a bit of musing on the nature of time – his father was a South African watchmaker who once mended that of Nelson Mandela on which he counted off the hours of his imprisonment. There are some references to his acting jobs – everything from Shakespeare to a brief appearance in the first Star Wars movie. There’s even a section where Klaff demonstrates how scientific experimentation is exactly like pantomime with one expert asserting “oh yes it is” while another retorts with “oh no it isn’t”.
So, an early reference to Laurence Sterne perhaps gives an indication of what Klaff is up to. He claims to have a resemblance to the eighteenth century author but when I looked at the latter’s portrait later on I failed to see it. Then I realised that the resemblance is probably more intellectual than physical. Sterne after all wrote the original rambling shaggy dog narrative The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy the central conceit of which is that the narrator supposedly telling his life story cannot and will not stay on track. Rather he diversifies all over the place and Klaff certainly follows that lead bounding (apparently but I suspect not actually) from one topic to another with a baffling rapidity which leaves the audience slightly breathless. This is reinforced physically by Klaff’s constant wanderings around the stage, trying (largely fruitlessly it has to be said) to promote some audience participation and occasionally throwing himself into a chair only to spring straight back up again as he starts on a new track.
So, the digressions are actually at the heart of the show and what results is a super animated TED talk encompassing that Douglas Adamsian notion of “life, the universe and everything”. So, depending on your point of view, it’s either a highly polished, finely wrought monologue (as Klaff persistently reminds us it was first performed 20 years ago) or it’s a ragbag of ideas without structure or, ultimately a point. I think it’s probably both. So…..
The Whole Shebang is available via the Jermyn Street website – click here
The full programme for the Footprints Festival at Jermyn Street Theatre is here
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