Event review: ‘Mr Mineshaft’ at Theatre Utopia, Thursday 15th – Saturday 18th December 2016

By - Wednesday 21st December, 2016

A strong solo performance holds together a disjointed picture of an extraordinary life

Image by Unfinished Productions, used with permission.

I’m familiar with Theatre Utopia’s space, having seen shows there before and indeed having chaired the Citizen‘s 2015 election debate on its stage (back when it was simply ‘the Matthews Yard studio’). It’s come a long way this year. Small changes to furnishings, better curtains, improved lighting… it all adds up to a classy fringe venue with a large stage many of its equivalents would kill for. Last Friday, it was in good nick. The only minor flaw in an otherwise welcoming and well-maintained space was that my companion’s seat was slightly damaged and slanted downwards in such a way that meant they kept slipping off until they swapped it with another.

I’ll stop describing the theatre before this review descends into parochial farce. Mr Mineshaft tells the desperately sad story of the life of Julius Eastman, a minimalist composer in the late twentieth century. He was American, he was black, and he was gay. If that isn’t giving you an idea of the difficulties he faced in spite of his obvious talent, his premature death at the age of forty-nine should help.

Mr Mineshaft‘s only performer, Adam Courting, has a difficult task in conveying the energy and emotion of a brilliant musician who would not push his rage against bigotry to one side. Courting just about pulls it off, bringing together a tricky script (the show is more a series of monologues than a coherent play) with confident physical presence and vocal strength.

Courting also earned serious points with me for an electric moment when actor and reality engaged. Next door, music venue Hoodoo’s put Theatre Utopia’s awful soundproofing to the test with a hearty rendition of ‘Rolling In The Deep‘. Courting-as-Eastman was mid-flow in a scene explaining his passion for music as a provocative weapon, and found himself about to deliver the line “is music not meant to intrude?”. A gesture towards the booming Adele cover was all it took to create a second of theatre magic.

Eastman has charisma bordering on mania

Much of the play covers the apex of Eastman’s career, during which he toured internationally and worked with figures so famous that even a musical philistine like me has heard of them, such as John Cage. Eastman was simultaneously lauded and shunned for his insistence on provocative titles for his pieces. The haunting ‘Evil Nigger’ is heard at various points of the production, giving the audience a too-fleeting glimpse of Eastman’s ability. Courting took gleeful ownership of this and all of Eastman’s deliberately shocking statements, and there are many in the play, giving the character a charisma bordering on but never quite crossing into mania. Who cares whether he notates his music in the conventional manner? Why bother responding to condemnation from academics who benefit from white, straight privilege? Who is to say that Eastman was not making art when he lived in filth in Tompkins Square Park?

Mr Mineshaft is not a perfect piece of theatre, and nor is it a particularly stellar piece of writing. But Courting’s performance and the confident direction of the piece make it a worthwhile way to spend forty-five minutes learning about someone more of us should have heard of. I hope that Unfinished Productions return to Croydon soon.

Theatre Utopia’s triumphant year will no doubt be followed by greater success in the next. This is greatly pleasing; not only is this exciting venue’s success tied to Croydon’s cultural vibrancy, but frankly I’m that glad somebody’s had a good 2016.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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