A SUMMONS FROM THE PAST TO MAKE THE PRESENT BEARABLE..
The horn is the most primitive of instruments: a column of air, blown through a cone. Even in the most sophisticated forms, it never quite loses that primitive, magical quality, a summoning command: Queen Susan’s Narnian hunting-horn, something to follow deep into a forest. But the French Horn is, of course, the most sophisticated (and most fiendishly difficult) of instruments, with its baffling golden curlicues and blaring mouth, its demand for powerful embouchure of the player’s poor mouth, its complex fingering…
Jasper Rees, some years ago, wrote a book about how, during a difficult mid-life crisis, he found his old school instrument in the attic neglected for 30 years, and resolved to re-learn it: and worse, to do a solo of Mozart’s Horn Concerto K447 in front of a paying audience at the British Horn Society. The book had a success, but the biggest stroke of luck Mr Rees had was that it beguiled another man – of his age, type, and family-man condition – who could play the horn. Rather better. And who was not only an actor but a playwright: Jonathan Guy Lewis, author of the much-praised Our Boys. Between them, they made this one-man play: first as an hour-long piece five years ago, now expanded to 90 minutes with some expansion of the story.
It’s a simple enough tale: depressed divorced man wonders what life’s all about, finds horn, remembers pleasures (and a revealed humiliation) from schooldays, and makes the resolution. Lewis is a versatile and engaging actor, and takes us from his glum-divorced-bloke persona, sighing at his half-estranged son’s awful music in the background, into the shy romantic depths of what he once was. He plays all the parts – himself, bluff Dave his mentor from the horn society, his camp old school music-master trilling about “Wolfie”, a number of marvellous enthusiasts and doubters at a “Horn Camp” in the Adirondacks, and at times the voice of the horn itself: a Czech-made Lidl from Brno, reproaching him for neglecting it all these years while even its home country ceased to exist.
It’s a virtuoso turn both dramatically and musically, often funny but more than that. Between them Rees and Lewis have drilled down into universal truths and sadnesses: the midlife fret, the need to reclaim your past from the clutter and dust of passing time, the male need to search for the “wild horn-man” within . Lewis plays, sometimes terribly, gradually better and better until the great, panicked triumph of the finale. And learns, as one mentor tells him, to let go the “post-Wagnerian breast-thumping lyricism” and hunt for the levity, the joy, the hunting-horn vigour of it. And of life itself.
I fell for it, knew I would from the first moment when he looks down at the battered old case in the attic and the horn shines up at him (clever lighting plot) and in his head, somewhere form the corner in the complex Sara Hillier soundscape, are heard the “horns of Elfland faintly blowing” from the land of youth. Tears in my eye, dammit.
And another reflection: when there is work as original, as developed and finely worked and universal and fascinating as this going on in tiny studio theatres, why does the BBC never notice? Why isn’t it on television? It isn’t going to be enough for the new Tony Hall regime to relay the big operas and major plays, grand though that is. They need to get out a bit, and find and adapt things which have grown as this did, not through anxious WIA commissioning-rounds, but organically, with love…
box office 0844 8717632 / http://www.atgtickets.com