Tomorrow May Be My Last, Old Red Lion Theatre – Review

The 1960s had many ‘one-off’ icons, artists whose qualities had never been seen before or since. Janis Joplin was one such person. But like many of her generation, she was flawed, complex and beset by emotional trauma. But that’s why many people love her so – her raw emotions bled through into her music… Written and performed by Collette Cooper, Tomorrow May Be My Last is an unabashed love letter to Joplin, and her legacy as a performer and human being. Anyone who knows anything about Joplin’s life knows that there is a lot to unpack and near impossible to convey succinctly or in-depth. That doesn’t stop Cooper from trying though. For the non-musical part of the show, we meet Joplin pouring out her thoughts and feelings over her favourite beverage: Southern Comfort. Much like Tennessee Williams’ ‘Brick’ in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Joplin keeps drinking until she hears the ‘click’ when the voices in her head are muted.

At a time when opinions on the burgeoning counterculture, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement were splitting America along generational and north/south lines, Joplin encapsulated the battle for America’s soul. Growing up in the ‘Jim Crow’-supporting town of Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin was ridiculed by her peers at school for being unattractive, as well as standing up for African Americans. Joplin’s outlook was in keeping with the counterculture that had a strong presence in the east and west coast, but she had the ‘bad luck’ of living nowhere near these ‘areas of enlightenment’. All these events obliquely colour Cooper’s performance of Joplin.

Cooper gets under the skin of Joplin’s doubts, which in private (or indeed in public) crippled her. As ‘Joplin the rock star’, she is adored by all, but sooner or later, she is left to the deafening silence of her own company. It becomes all too apparent that that she has never in fact shaken off the ‘ugly duckling syndrome’ and whether real or imagined, sees and hears reminders of the taunts of yesteryear.

In terms of the songs covered, Cooper and the session musician band TSP (Jack Parry, Jan Simson, Daniel Malek and Sam McDonald) do a sterling job of covering classics such as Cry Baby, Half-Moon, Tell Mama and Piece of my Heart, as well as the eponymous self-penned song Tomorrow May Be My Last. But far from being expected to sit quietly during the musical numbers, the audience are encouraged to clap and (within reason!) demonstrate their enjoyment of the show. Cooper as Joplin also directly interacts with the audience, obliquely showing the star’s search for affirmation and love from her ‘fellow misfits’.

The show also teases Joplin knowing her musical peers such as Jim Morrison. But anyone familar with pop folklore knows this is an ominous connection, as between 1969 and 1971, they both (along with Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones) died at the age of 27. If the 1960s offered an unparalled good time for young people and hope for the future, the cusp of the decade ushered in ‘the hangover’…

What becomes apparent from watching the show is how Joplin’s strength as a performer was also her greatest weakness. Her empathy for others and capacity to feel so many emotions, which manifested in her music also meant she was unable to ‘switch them off’. Much like an open nerve, Joplin’s ‘open’ personality is unable to departmentalise her pain or find closure. The only thing she is sure of, the only source of comfort, is the importance of ‘carpe diem’

© Michael Davis 2023

Tomorrow May Be My Last runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 6th May

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