Can a memoir show work if the truth has been altered? And does it really matter?
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When The Smoking Gun published an article highlighting the inaccuracies in James Frey’s autobiographical tale of substance abuse A Million Little Pieces in 2006, Frey’s response was that the book (now called a ‘semi-fictional memoir’) was the ‘essential truth’ of his life. Information had been changed, details compressed, but he had still captured the ‘essence’ of beating his habit.
This is the problem of the memoir, be it on paper or on stage – we believe the artist bares their soul to us, but in the process of writing and performing the work is refined and re-written. In the case of John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown, now making its UK debut after an award-winning run on Broadway, we know that the story is not spontaneous, having been performed many times. We know we’re not the only audience he’s confided in. In his own programme notes ‘Johnny Legs’ (as he calls himself) acknowledges that the timeline has been altered, characters amalgamated, but, like Frey, it still contains that ‘essential truth’.
The big question is – can a memoir show work if the truth has been altered? And does it really matter?
Well, in Ghetto Klown, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Leguizamo is a born showman, obviously much happier on stage than on film despite a varied but (largely) respectable resume including Carlito’s Way, Summer of Sam and The Super Mario Brothers Movie. At 47, he is still dangerously handsome, lean, muscular and wears a pair of sweat pants which this reviewer, from his Row B seat, couldn’t help but notice. He break dances, he body pops, he fires off Hollywood impressions with gusto (Steven Seagal and Brian De Palma are particular highlights) while the outlandish punch up with Patrick Swayze (both in full drag) on the set of To Wong Foo is worth the entry price alone.
However, it’s his own private story that engages – the distant father who rejected him for putting his family life on stage in early shows; the failed relationships and his weakness for women who reject him; and, most poignantly, the quiet death of his revolutionary grandfather. His ear for mimicry is always affectionate, conjuring a cast of characters who fill the relatively small Charing Cross Theatre.
The show is well polished – Peter Fitzgerald’s sound and Aaron Gonzales’ projection designs are razor sharp and slicker than slick – and Fisher Stevens’ direction never lets the pace drop. This ‘Latino Laurence Olivier’ has the audience in his thrall from the moment he bounces out on stage – a life lived at times well, at times badly, but ultimately lived to the full and that in itself makes this story worth telling. Johnny Legs is only in town until mid-November. Go now, and bask in his glory.
Words: Dan Usztan
Ghetto Klown is at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 12th November