Upon entry to a new show at the Barbican, everyone in the audience was given a silver key with a tag attached. It had the number 29 written on it. This was a simple but enticing way to involve people in the facade of the production, entitled Room 29, from the get go. It took place in a theatre but ticket holders were invited to pretend they were staying in the Chateau Marmont hotel, Hollywood – a legendary place where countless celebrities have resided over the years.
The show was a collaboration between Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales. Gonzales is a virtuoso piano player and producer from Canada. He has worked with Drake and Daft Punk, and in 2011 released the first orchestral rap album. Jarvis is known for being in the iconic brit pop band Pulp. His faux awkward manner somehow chimes nicely with Chilly’s, who is the epitome of cool. The creative masterminds ordered The Kaiser Quartett, a string quartet, from room service during the performance. Visuals were delivered by film makers Auge Altona.
Room 29 was a multimedia experience. Gonzales wrote the music, Cocker provided the words and clips from classic Hollywood films played on a big screen behind them. Cocker is a roaringly good story teller. Much like David Sedaris, he keeps it simple and witty. He is sparing with the detail, fleshing out his yarns just enough to give them substance and peppering them with droll observations. His partner is a wizard on the piano. He showcased stunning versatility and imagination, in what were clearly complex and technically impressive compositions.
The songs were melancholy and sophisticated. They were dynamic ballads which moved elegantly between being spacious and reflective, and stormy and dramatic. On a surface level they were cleverly disguised as the kind of easy listening lounge music you might hear in a hotel bar. The lyrics were half spoken, half sung in true Pulp style. The work as a whole was funny, with touches of brooding darkness and insight. “Room 29 is where I’ll face myself alone”.
The famous names who have stayed in the hotel include 30s film star Jean Harlow and the late Heath Ledger. Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded the vocals for the classic By The Way there, and Led Zeppelin once drove their Harley Davidsons into the lobby. Unusually, the real room 29 has a baby grand piano, which of course featured heavily at the Barbican.
Room 29 lay somewhere between a play and a gig. It was like being caught in a surreal place where fantasy and tales of the past converged to create something classy, whimsical and atmospheric.