By BRUCE DENNILL
Jervis Pennington: An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life / Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
A clean-cut pop star in his twenties, Jervis Pennington is now in his early sixties and steps onto stage looking like he’s been wearing the same clothes for all of that time. It’s a costume, of course, complete with filth on his face and bandages around his hands and wrists. But it’s a mantle that Pennington wears naturally, and some of the reasons for that are revealed in the hour and half of storytelling and singing that follows his entrance.
Coming across as a sort of mash-up of David Kramer and Paul Slabolepszy – he displays the pair’s gritty wit, gruff charm and storytelling ability, and the songwriting nous of the former – the former Soft Shoe drops the polished pop star schtick (referenced in an old TV clip up front) and gets down to business immediately, introducing the affected but authentic persona of current-day Jervis Pennington.
With a battered old acoustic guitar either lying on a blanket next to his chair or being gently strummed on his lap, Pennington shares with the audience his initial fall from grace and its consequences and, latterly, his discovery of hope and a level of contentment, all without giving too much away. He is, like many songwriters, a superb raconteur, able to – apparently – segue from carefully scripted anecdote to random digression and back at will.
But his manner and performance is edgy enough to make second-guessing the action seem occasionally reasonable. When Pennington talks about his medical issues, a twitch or a stutter in his delivery seems to have more import than it otherwise might have, or is that just the power of suggestion? When he scrabbles around for a tub of lip balm and pauses to apply it, is that the act of an artist adding a fine nuance to a character who’s lived rough on the streets and has the existing scars to prove it, or the same action applied to a man – who happens to be a performer – who’s still in that position?
Pennington speaks often of redemption, but the full extent to which he’s achieved or enjoyed that state is never made clear, and this adds an enigmatic layer to the piece as a whole, and a feeling of real poignancy when the one-man show ends and that resolution is still tantalisingly out of reach.
It’s impossible to know what has been left out, but what has been included serves as a warning about the vagaries of fame – made more intimate and personal here by Pennington being South African and touching on a number of recognisable cultural details – and about regrets and recovering from them. It’s also packed with self-deprecating humour, droll observations and fantastic, rambling Leonard Cohen-esque folk songs that fill in the details on various subjects, with the singer-songwriter’s lyrics poetically communicating some concepts in ways that even his excellent narration can’t match.