There is an interval of sorts in Comeback Special, at least in the sense that I had a bit of time to myself in which I momentarily nodded off. The last time I nodded off in a theatre, I ended up slating the show in question; I will not do so here – this show doesn’t deserve it. What happened was this. Greg Wohead, whose one-man show this is, was bouncing around the stage talking separately and quietly to various sections of the audience whilst a recording played, roping them into a re-enactment of a scene from what has become known as Elvis Presley’s 1968 television comeback special.
This all took time and as many practice runs as necessary – no undue pressure was placed on anyone to do their little thing correctly straight away. While some in the audience, particularly the participants (voluntary, in case anyone was wondering if they should take advice on arrival as to where to sit) were enjoying the process, I chose to take time out. The exercise was, I think, meant to be indicative of the number of retakes a television recording can go through, so although it was on one level mind-numbingly repetitive, in context, it was something very unique.
It was totally unexpected, too. Wohead’s narrative was progressing steadily, before suddenly slowing up for this rather long and drawn out scene. There is very little staging, with sparing but effective use of projections, and it isn’t an exhausting 90-minute all guns blazing Elvis Presley impersonation either. To take his audience on a journey through the comeback special, Wohead simultaneously slows things down while speaking fairly quickly; the entire setup is described in exquisite and discerning detail, allowing the audience to imagine what it really must have been like.
Of course, with so much going on, it is potentially possible to spend an entire show detailing the backstories of all the television crew, the on-stage band, and so on and so forth. But thrown into the mix here is some actual live singing, and even a full description of how Wohead found himself doing this show in the first place.
This isn’t, then, a straightforward jukebox musical. Million Dollar Quartet, for instance, is a live adaptation of a milestone recording, in which Elvis Presley is but one artist featured. Comeback Special is more of a refreshingly candid look at Presley’s life at the time of the original taping and broadcast, and, considering it’s a show about a show, it’s very compelling. It’s the sort of production that really wouldn’t work in any other medium than live theatre – not as a TV show, radio broadcast or motion picture. Successfully demonstrating what can only be possible on stage with an engaged audience, this particular Comeback Special isn’t so much a show as an experience.
With all the insights and observations included, I enjoyed this production more than I would have enjoyed sitting through a DVD of the original. I do have a couple of minor quibbles, though. The show – sorry, experience – loses its way just a little bit towards the finish, and there’s a line missing from the very, very end of the evening’s proceedings: how do we know if Elvis has left the building, if nobody has told us? Still, Wohead’s ability to carry an audience all on his own is extraordinary. This production is highly imaginatively put together, and it’s left me (forgive my corny conclusion) all shook up.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Comeback special is a take on Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special, an American TV special that was originally called ‘Elvis’, but became known as his big comeback. When Wohead came across the original 1968 Comeback Special, he was immediately struck by its potency and ridiculousness – the in-the-round set up that reflected both power and vulnerability, the idea of the comeback and the attempt to come back as the best version of oneself.
Wohead’s Comeback Special engages with a cultural conversation around gender and sexual identity and the influence of dominant cultural images, but at its heart it is deeply personal and intimate.
Comeback Special is at the Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT, from Tuesday 22nd – Saturday 26th March 2016.