“Yes, I have a voice… I just believe you don’t always have to speak to be heard.” Joseph Frank ‘Buster’ Keaton is well known the world over as an iconic silent film star – that’s all that many will know about him. Though over the course of his 60 years there was a great deal more going on in his life, where events off-screen could rival what he was shooting for the big screen. James Dangerfield brings his acclaimed one-man show to the Pleasance Courtyard’s Cellar for the festival’s entirety.
We meet Buster at MGM Studios later on in his career, where he’s ready to tell the story of his life by picking out seven key dates: March 1917, June 1921, September 1921, October 1924, April 1926, January 1927 and September 1927. He begins by recalling his film debut (The Butcher Boy), where he met best friend Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and also professes his fascination with film-making. This leads to him setting up his own studio and getting a taste for making his own films, which often include incredibly risky stunts – including a train collapsing the bridge in The General, and Keaton achieving inch-perfect precision in Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a house facade falls onto him, leaving him unscathed. In the background there are marital problems, and the beginning of a reliance on alcohol to shut it all out.
What makes this show all the more remarkable is that it has been created and developed in true Buster Keaton fashion; James Dangerfield not only performs the show, but he also wrote the book, lyrics & most of the music, as well as producing it. The result is a musical with a clarity of vision that manages to bring Buster back to life for an hour, and also pays tribute to his creativity, perseverance and character.
It blends song, speech, slapstick and film clips to create an enchanting piece of theatre – it’s clear that a lot of heart and soul has gone into making it. For a complete Keaton novice like me, it’s also pretty informative, managing to cram a fair amount of detail about his life & career into a short space of time.
Dangerfield is an incredibly charming performer, and puts his body & voice on the line, all in the name of the show. He has impressive physicality, and makes sprinting on the spot whilst singing flawlessly seem like the easiest thing in the world! It’s a shame some of his slapstick moves are only really visible from the front couple of rows, but that’s the nature of certain performance spaces, unfortunately. That does nothing to tarnish an impeccable performance and a sublime show.
My verdict? Enchanting yet informative, full of slapstick, beautiful music, and a dash of pathos – a gargantuan effort by writer/performer James Dangerfield.
When You Fall Down: The Buster Keaton Story runs at Pleasance Courtyard (The Cellar) until 27 August 2018 (12.05pm, 50 min). Tickets are available online or from the box office.