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A CurtainUp London  Review
I Just Stopped by to See the Man

By Lizzie Loveridge

See what I'm sayin'. To sing the blues you got to know the blues. To sing the blues you got to have the blues.   -- Jesse

Stephen Jeffrey's new play I Just Stopped by to See the Man is a rare pleasure, an interesting and involving new play about the blues and its impact on 1970s groups such as the Rolling Stones. Add to the mix Richard Wilson, a director who is gaining in confidence as he makes his forte directing after a successful career as a comedy actor, three very good performances and a wonderful venue in the Royal Court and you have all the ingredients for success.

In the Mississippi Delta, 75 year old Jesse Davidson (Tommy Hollis), a blues singer known as "The Man" is living with his daughter. He is thought to have died in a car crash which killed his wife and the driver of the car fourteen years ago. The daughter, Della (Sophie Okonedo), is on the run from the Feds after being involved with a murder by a black activist group but her father does not know this at the beginning of the play. Into their world comes Karl (Ciaran McMenamin), a white English rock star with his question for Jesse "Is it better to sing the blues but not to have them. Or to have the blues and not sing them?" Karl's group have had several hits based on Jesse's early work. Karl wants to persuade Jesse to appear on stage with his group but this will have repercussions for all three of them. Jeffreys makes a parallel between Karl and the Devil as Jesse is tempted.

There are those who have said that Jeffreys, a white man, cannot know what a black man feels. True enough, but who is to say that he should not write about it? What he has written is an extremely atmospheric, well-constructed play. Even in December, in London, it gives the feeling of the heat of South. Your interest is held as the motivation and secrets of each of the three characters is unfolded. And the blues is excellent.

The casting is appropriate : Tommy Hollis, an American, brings an acting gravitas to the part of Jesse, a resignation as to his lot. He is large man, deep voiced and with great presence. His blues singing is truly wonderful. Hollis is full of wry humour, as he satirises the boy from Surrey -- and sadness, when he discovers the truth about his daughter. As he sports his felt hat and sharp suit we can also feel the attraction to sing in public again. Sophie Okonedo's Della is sparky but it is difficult to believe that a Black activist could be happy back in the Deep South. There is obvious affection between father and daughter even though each represents a different world. Ciaran McMenamin's long haired, ever clad in black Karl is filled with desperation at having no more bookings for his band, and his drug problem. His edgy but exuberant determination rides rough shod over the Davidson family.

Julian McGowan's wooden shack set is authentically dilapidated, with Johanna Town's lighting intensifying the atmosphere. Twice we switch to the rear of the stage at a gig, Karl outlined in front of the crowd, with the noise of the occasion. Richard Wilson directs with sensitivity.

Written by Stephen Jeffries
Directed by Richard Wilson

Starring: Tommy Hollis
With: Sophie Okenodo and Ciaran McMenamin
Design: Julian McGowan
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Music Advisor: Guy Pratt
Running time: Two hours ten minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to January 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th December 2000 performance at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square London SW1
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