The Arcola has to be one of the most flexible fringe spaces in London. Ideally suited then to stage Jack Shepherd’s jazz club drama Chasing The Moment, a play which riffs on the role that music plays in a person’s social identity.
Les, Tony, Joe and Harry are members of a jazz quartet who play regular sets in a small club in East London. Les, the pianist, (also played by Shepherd) is an old hand at this; he’s been in the game for a long time and takes everything in his stride. His younger bandmates are less laid-back: Tony is eager for the approval of his Church-going West Indian father and Joe uses his music as a neat way of pulling women (Tony’s sister Sharon being one of his previous conquests). Bassist Harry seems to only care about getting paid so he can fund his next fix. The music to him is a means to an end.
As they set up their instruments, we learn that the manager of the club has just been hospitalised – a suspected heart attack – this event overshadows the proceedings, especially as his partner Joanna keeps drifting in to talk to them, outwardly confident but obviously dazed and scared.
Featuring a cast who are also competent musicians, Mehmet Ergen’s production has a neat symmetry to it. In the first half the characters slowly set up their instruments and in the second half they pack them away in the interval they play a short set. A bar has been set up in the theatre itself to encourage people to linger and listen. This, along with the tables and chairs, bottle-strewn and scattered with fag ends, that have been placed in front of the stage, makes for a suitably authentic atmosphere. Audience members are encouraged to sit at these tables and the actors move about between them, adding to this effect.
Chasing The Moment has an ambling quality, with each character getting to have their moment. The ensemble cast all give strong performances, especially Clifford Samuel as Tony and Jim Bywater as the permanently drug-addled and rather sad Harry. Helen Anderson adds a measure of poignancy to proceedings as Joanna, sipping whisky as she waits for news of the man she loves.
Shepherd – whose new play Holding Fire, about the Chartist uprising, will be part of Dominic Dromgoole’s second season at the Globe – explores the subtly different hold that jazz has over each of his characters. He puts across their singular view points (for Tony, jazz is about his black British heritage, for Les it’s intwined with his working class background) without disrupting the flow of the drama. Though the pacing drags in places, this is an intelligent and engaging work staged in one of London’s most consistently interesting off West End venues.