When You Fall Down: The Buster Keaton Story

If silent Hollywood star Buster Keaton is remembered for anything, it's his emotionless, mask-like expression; so the initial shock here is that this Buster speaks and smiles. "Yes, I have a voice. I've always had one," he says, which we soon learn was about him having creative control over his films—a significant issue for him given that the framework of the show is Buster introducing himself to his new paymasters at MGM studios.

With just one performer, there's too little variety and conflict.

This new musical, written and performed by James Dangerfield, is understandably somewhat kind to its subject, focusing on seven important days between 1917 and 1927. Intentionally or not, this approach emphasises how Buster's career in cinema was synonymous with the entire industry: he came from a Vaudeville background, found his particular niche in stunt-heavy short films, and then worked hard to become one of the industry's biggest stars. As a coda, we also learn that his fame and success waned with the coming of sound, but he survived long enough to be "rediscovered" by whole new generations through television.

There's nothing wrong in a musical having a bitter-sweet narrative, of course; and Buster's fate was arguably far better than that of his mentor in the business, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose on-screen career ended after a Hollywood sex scandal. Dangerfield's goal here, obviously, is to give some suggestion of Buster's motivations and focus, not least when budgetary constraints and a failing marriage contrive to knock him down for good. These range from a love of the camera, capable of bringing "to life whatever I can dream", to the sad realisation of his failing marriage: "She shopped, I drank."

This show's problem, though, is that, with just one performer, there’s too little variety and conflict; some of Dangerfield's songs are really good, but here they risk blending together into blandness, in part because Martyn Stringer's pre-recorded piano/synth arrangements simply grate on the nerves after half an hour. And finally, while Dangerfield is a fine performer, he's no Buster Keaton—as becomes obvious from the inclusion of original footage of the man himself.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Traverse Theatre

Arctic Oil

★★★★
Multiple Venues

Scotties

★★★★
Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Through slapstick, songs and soft shoe shuffle, follow the triumphs and trials of silent star Buster Keaton making his iconic movies. As the world whirls around, his marriage failing, his career at threat and turning to the bottle, Buster must hit his mark as he films his most dangerous ever stunt. An award-winning one-man musical, performed in the US for Buster's own family and endorsed by The International Buster Keaton Society. 'Entertaining, engaging and full of charm.' (LondonPubTheatres.com), 'When You Fall Down is a triumph' (Binnie Brennan, Keaton author).