Review: Banjo Man, Etcetera Theatre

Banjo Man is a perfect concept searching for some finer execution. This one-woman show is the brainchild of Quina Chapman, an achingly talented, honey-voiced performer who takes us on a tour of her father Roger Dinsdale’s memory and the curious tale of his banjo-picking talents. The outline is sublime: we meet the multi-talented musician and dad before he is picked up by a ‘big cheese’ record producer, and follow her anecdotes as they describe his work on the 1994 worldwide hit single ‘Swamp Thing’ on which his banjo-playing features. As a eulogy for her father, Banjo Man is tender and often deeply poignant, but as a play it badly needs a reshuffle.

Chapman’s voice is flawless – rich, heavy with emotion, versatile, ranging from a raw country and western twang to a pure angelic register – but the opening number is a mawkish hit of sentiment that comes too soon. Chapman needs to earn the audience’s emotional investment – without a clue as to who we are mourning, the invocation to share in her sorrow simply falls flat. If I were less stony cynic, I would say there was a simple emotional relatability in her clean lyrics (‘My daddy’s gone away / to a place I cannot follow’). Unfortunately, the line between simple and simplistic is crossed too early. In treating grief, mourning and loss as her topics, Chapman strays into the territory of some of the greatest theatre craft on earth, and whilst one doesn’t go to the Etcetera theatre (a cosy shoebox above a pub in Camden) to see the next Hamlet, one does expect at least a little original or unexpected emotional engagement with the notion of loss.

Chapman’s monologues suffer from their wording. It’s the stuff of conversations, the unrefined remarks which friends make to one another as they struggle through complex emotions in simple language. It is truthful, but it tends towards bald, documentary-style reportage. We get a series of disconnected vignettes, offered up like a mishmash of tracks on a much-loved teenage mixtape. Chapman’s father is there through them all, in the little child’s memories of sound checks and band practice in Harlesden, his early lessons in Hendrix and Green Day, and particularly in that profoundly relatable moment of awkwardness and regret when Chapman turns away from his ‘dad dancing’. It’s not that these moments aren’t sweet, sad and salient. It’s just that they are our only insight into who Dinsdale might have been, and they are too prosaic – the instruments he played, the Yorkie bars he liked – to stand for a whole person.

At the heart of Banjo Man is an adored father, and some tendrils of fact about his life. Chapman cleverly weaves documentary evidence into her work – we see his passport stamps from the ‘Swamp Thing’ world tour, and some truly touching family photographs – but they need some self-reflecivity and a wider emotional range than the simple one on offer. The little child Chapman’s thoughts (‘I felt like the coolest kid’) are deeply authentic, and no doubt charming for many. There are hearty laughs from the audience as Chapman recounts, at a girlish pitch, times that she felt ‘well grown-up’. But it’s not quite enough to hang a story upon – or at least, not such a potentially rich story as Dinsdale’s.

And perhaps that’s the point. As an audience we long for details that we could not have imagined, to see and hear Dinsdale’s verbal tics, foibles, for the strangeness that makes us human. There are moments like this in Banjo Man – my favourite is a tender and truly chortle-worthy family joke in which Chapman first hears the word ‘son’ – but these snippets relate more to Chapman than her father. In a deep poetic echo of the play’s topic, I left Banjo Man wishing that I had known Dinsdale. I felt loss and longing, because the piece tries, with raw emotional urgency and haunting sincerity, to resuscitate him in his fullness and complexity, but ends up dwelling in cliché.

The music, and Chapman’s mesmering voice go some way towards redeeming it. As an artist and singer, Chapman is breathtakingly talented. She’s deeply likeable, with an exceptionally beautiful voice, and the bravery to take on an intensely personal quest through the medium of theatre. It takes guts to dig into the pain of bereavement, craft it into a play and then expose to yourself to the world. You can’t help but admire her project, but more for its great potential than its polished status. There’s life in this show yet.

Banjo Man is playing the Etcetera Theatre until 9 August. For more information and tickets, see the Camden Fringe website. Photo by Etcetera Theatre. 

Ettie Bailey-King

Ettie Bailey-King

Ettie is the outreach officer for The Schools Consent Project (@SCPLondon, www.theschoolsconsentproject.com) and a creative writer at Write Young Things (www.writeyoungthings.com)