John Waters’ and Stewart D’Arrietta’s two-man show Lennon: Through a Glass Onion has returned to Sydney for its silver anniversary tour. It’s done the rounds off-Broadway, in London’s West End, at the Edinburgh Festival and even, daringly, in the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool. It’s currently playing to a packed-to-the-rafters Playhouse at Sydney Opera House.
Not a play, not a concert, this ‘biographical jukebox monologue’, as one critic dubbed the unique format, is based on John Lennon’s final breathing moments after the fatal gunshot, as his whole life flashes before his eyes.
John Waters, most recently recognisable for the role of Darcy Proudman in the TV series Offspring, embodies Lennon. Waters recounts his life history through a series of performances of famous Lennon songs spliced with famous quotes, as well as dramatic elaborations on them, creating a sketchy narrative.
With a bare stage and only two actors on it, the concept is deceptively simply. But this minimalism, together with intelligently executed lighting, works to draw an intense focus on the man himself.
Do not be misled; this is not a Beatles cover band show. Without donning a mop wig and round glasses — and with a gruffness never seen on Lennon’s forever-boyish face — Waters is far from a Lennon impersonator. Waters shows remarkable skill as an actor, sensitively depicting an impression of the character rather than the image of John Lennon. Beneath the brash, brazen and brutally sarcastic façade that made Lennon the bane of the establishment, and which Waters captures to a tee, he reveals a moving and endearing vulnerability.
The song selection is derived from Lennon’s career as a Beatle and a solo artist. It is cleverly biographical. It runs the gamut from the anguish of lesser known-numbers such as Julia and Mother – ‘Mama don’t go, Daddy come home’ – juxtaposed with snatches of self-reflective monologues.
Both Waters and D’Arrietta are musically brilliant. Waters’ voice has rather more gravel to it than Lennon’s, but his Liverpudlian accent is convincing and charismatic. What is most impressive from Waters is the technical ability required to stop mid-song and soliloquise. The abrupt changes from singing to speaking happen repeatedly and keep the momentum of the show going. D’Arrietta, a talent worthy of a concert of his own, instrumentally holds the performance together. He unbelievably plays virtuosic piano, whilst his left foot pedals a powerful, punctuating bass drum beat — all the while providing his own singing contributions. It gives an effect like the famous Beatles vocal harmonies.
Partly based on old Lennon interviews, in which he reveals his attention-seeking and boasting tendencies as a child, Waters as Lennon showcases the heartbreak of childhood abandonment, grief and loss. The musical-monologue takes us on a tour through Lennon’s struggle with fame and judgement from the press. There’s his battle with addiction, his friendship and rivalry with McCartney, his intense bond with Yoko, his spiritual journey to India, and the joyful and humbling experience of becoming a father.
We gain a deeper understanding of the songs we know so well, as they were a vehicle Lennon used to express his emotional reactions to significant life events, and we see a side to Lennon that perhaps we did not know before. Of course, part of the charm of Lennon: Through a Glass Onion is also singing along with the iconic Beatles hits and basking in the memories they bring up for us.
There’s a reason why Lennon: Through a Glass Onion is still being performed 25 years after its Sydney premiere.
Alicia Tripp is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Lennon: Through a Glass Onion runs until 12 February at the Sydney Opera House. Purchase tickets now. The venue is accessible.
It also runs one night only (18 Feb.) at Anita’s Theatre Thirroul in Wollongong. Buy tickets now.