Theatre Review: Elton – The Experience, Or Of Harmonies And Hallucinations

July 8, 2022


Elton: The Experience / Directed by Brett de Groot / The Theatre Linden, Johannesburg


With Elton John on his worldwide farewell tour, there has perhaps never been as apposite a time to celebrate his legacy – as a pianist and singer, as a songwriter and as a dandy; an extravagantly over-the-top clotheshorse with a range of personae.

Focusing on this latter facet of John’s career ensures a visually arresting tribute production, but costumes alone don’t engage more than the eyes. Here, the concept is more clever and more complex than that, featuring four different incarnations of the artist, played by different actors, and interacting with each other as they – individually and collectively – explore the different aspects and periods of John’s life and output through narrated storytelling and performance of a long list of his songs, both the big hits and some of the lesser-known gems.

Daniel Keith Geddes plays Elton as he is now, looking back at a full and spectacular but often challenging life. Cole Matthews plays Eighties Elton, providing a great physical match for the singer when wearing a straw boater. Brett de Groot plays Seventies Elton, the artist’s most successful and debauched incarnation. And, cleverly, Louise Duhain is included as Drag Elton – a period that began after a drunken night out with Rod Stewart… Everyone sings and plays piano and Geddes and Cole add bass to a rhythm section that includes Kyle September on guitars and backing vocals and Luca de Bellis on drums.

Having four Elton voices, all with very different characters means the arrangements can be fairly sophisticated, which also heightens the effect of solo passages, such as Duhain’s take on the Sara Bareilles version of Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road. September’s high falsetto and rock singing style add further possibilities, and he takes on one or two vocal leads while also nominally playing Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s career-long songwriting partner and, in this context, the butt of number of jokes. In the performance reviewed, there seemed to be a technical glitch with September’s guitar output, understandably distracting him. Matthews also struggled with his highest notes once or twice, but such minor gripes were balanced and more by the apparently effortless, steady excellence of De Bella’s playing, as well as the drummer’s infectious enthusiasm and encouragement of his co-stars.

The costumes and the set – De Groot’s department again – are loud and bright and lavish, and what seems like flat-out creative excess is revealed (in the programme as well as whatever googling you may end up doing after the show) as accurate research, history transposed on stage. And there is similar commitment in the choreography, with the grand piano being sat on, jumped on and danced on and otherwise abused in the name of entertainment.

Elton: The Experience is a load of fun that will develop and intensify as all of its components bed in fully. For Elton John fans, it’s a multi-sensory trip, and for newcomers (if there is such a thing, given the ubiquity of the man’s music), it’s great entertainment and insight into an artist the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again.