Content Warning: Suicide, Mental Health
Grunge King Kurt Cobain meets Drag Queen/King Gender-Bent Elvis in this vibrantly dark, pungently punkish, Space-themed Gig Theatre piece. That’s a lot in one sentence, but Earth To Kurt throws you fully balls to the wall within the first few minutes, as the house band The Fates set up and quickly plunge us into grunge purgatory and Kurt Cobain emerges from the darkness of space to deliver a killer riff on an electric guitar. The music is giddy yet raw, the performances deliver with verve and whimsy, yet we’re left feeling that a great deal of care has gone into creating an atmosphere of sensitivity surrounding the central themes of mental health, suicide and stardom.
Kurt, our central and quite often non-verbal character, is clearly adored by the band that surround him, as they help him tumble through his relationship to the world, to idols, to music and to his mind. The show’s imagination of Kurt is pertinent, but extremely caring in how it presents the life of someone clearly idolised by the show’s creators. This never negates introspection, however, and George Clark’s performance dips into a perception of mental health that is as revealing as it is tender. We witness as The Fates fill in for figures in Kurt’s life, offering moments of guidance and warning in the form of soft grunge that blends seamlessly through an additional audio soundscape into the more hardcore melodies. The musical register of the piece is awe-inducing, with members of the audience happily headbanging along in some sections and slowly grooving through the rest.
The moment of arrival – both thematically and dramatically – is magnificently put together, as we witness Elvis emerge from behind a curtain, turning every head in the room. His face painted in full drag makeup, a pristine white suit dazzles against the moody 90s backdrop of the piece so far. His presence oozes Rock fantasy, the cord of the microphone swung and swept across the stage behind him. Kyran Thrax, the Drag Queen behind the performance, saunters around the stage and Kurt clearly feels blessed by his presence. As he kicks into the first Elvis tune, you’re left genuinely unsure as to whether Kyran is lip syncing or providing a live performance (I’m 99% sure it was the latter, which is a stunning achievement), and Kurt is soon taken into the abyss of the space-like purgatory around him.
As we pass toward the ethereal ending of the play, Elvis and Kurt trade philosophies and quips, and the piece comes to a sense of completeness. The build up to the scenes handling Kurt’s mental health crisis are so neatly and progressively constructed, layered and textured by the music that invites you into the deep and intense show world. Though dark, we’re never left out in the open by the narrative, and the band are there to gently hold onto our hand. Moments of tenderness between Kurt and the band are covered in a gossamer film of delicateness, punctured by the foot-stomping blend of Elvis rock tunes and music borrowed from the Nirvana catalogue. The band are a joy to watch throughout, with a kinship amongst each other and within the narrative that means even when you look into the background of the piece, you’re always seeing a reflection of or reaction to the melodic themes. The original music fields the gap between the two, reminiscent of a more hardcore 70s space rock – David Bowie meets Elvis meets Kurt.
The piece, when handling the core and inevitable themes surrounding Kurt Cobain’s struggles with his mental and physical health, are expressive rather than forthright. In fact, the expressive nature of the piece’s thematic methodology is transposed onto Clark’s central performance, as we spend far more time in the musical and sensual world of Kurt rather than in long sections of dialogue or exposition. The darkness of space offers up a neat purgatorial metaphor, but the piece is nostalgic rather than bleak, offering us a chance to consider what, and who, makes the legacy of a rockstar. Ricky Hunt’s direction never assumes too little of the audience, offering them the chance to reflect onto the piece rather than jutter out into obscurity.
It’s hard to imagine a piece that more encapsulates the essence of Cobain, while still very much having its own distinct sense of originality. The treatment of his life is so dedicated, so inspired and you find yourself very quickly wrapped up in the very 90s atmosphere the whole thing creates. From hairstyles to clothes, eyeliner to bleach blonde hair, down to the very mannerisms and flow of the piece, there’s not a single moment you don’t believe what you’re seeing, even if it is so wild and fantastical, just as the life of any Rockstar is.
The composite nature of the piece as a blend of Cobain’s life and something else entirely – something unique, something Elvis, something Rock Opera, something your friend’s teenage band in the back room of a bar, something nostalgic and yet so pertinent. Punchy, powerful and foot-stompingly rich – this is Gig Theatre at its most enriching.
Recommended Drink: Have any kind of (Smells Like Teen) Spirit & Mixer. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Catch Earth to Kurt at VAULT Festival until Sunday 5th March at 21:15. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.