The Ballad of Soho Jones tells the story of Jones, who dwells in and around the streets of Soho with only a few shabby possessions, including a prized guitar, which he owns. Yet, it is not his home. “Music is my home,” he says emphatically. He walks everywhere, not just to get himself from A to Z, but also to transport himself from episodes of stress and depression to a place of better mental health.
One year before, on a night when his beloved London succumbs to a deluge, he cannot find shelter and his walkabout takes him to Chinatown and a discarded fortune cookie. “What do you want that you already have?” it asks of him. The question triggers a deep-felt resolve to contact his son, Isaac, probably now 12 years old, whom he has not seen in 5 years since becoming an urban itinerant. His crushing disappointment at finding that Isaac and his mum Sarah have moved on from the last North London address he knew, propels him back southward to Soho Square, only to find that his belongings, and more crucially his guitar, have been stolen. “That was the first time I truly felt homeless,” he confesses. Deeply shaken, he falls asleep on a bench, exhausted from the first tears he has allowed himself to weep in public, which mix with the London rain.
When he awakens, an upright piano has appeared in the square and, full of emotional turmoil, he begins to play. Thus begins a series of encounters which draw music from his wise old soul and onto YouTube with the accompanying #LookingForIsaac his only goal. When we meet him in the present, Soho Jones shares with us the bittersweet pause in his journey to reunite with his son. If I have painted a vivid picture of a fully realised stage play, it is because this is what you absorb from its star, Giles Terera. If I have avoided the use of nouns like tramp, vagrant, derelict, hobo or even homeless, it is because they have been made surprisingly irrelevant. Yet, from an intimately small black stage in Victoria’s St. James’ Theatre, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, Terera’s only accompaniments are an upright mic, a guitar with stand, plus a baby grand piano and stool. This makes The Ballad of Soho Jones one of the most wildly evocative one-man shows I have ever experienced.
Giles Terera, the mastermind of 2013’s Walk in The Light 5-day series and celebration of the achievements and contribution of black artists in British theatre at The National, wrote the play and 12 original songs (some co-written with best friend James) relating an unexpected tale of enlightenment and compassion.
Terera is a rare all-round talent and TBB Treasure, his Soho Jones opening the evening with an epic, feel-good urban poem Neon Is the Word. For visitors and inhabitants alike, this love letter validates chaotic, dependable, unpredictable, fast-moving, eclectic, traditional, comforting, bewildering, vitally beautiful neon-lit London! THEN he sings about the love of a father for a son, a brother for his sister, a man for a woman, a Londoner for his city and a constituent for his neighbour and neighbourhood – beautiful punctuations within his contemporaneous, keenly observed monologue. Gradually, he reveals that the people often referred to as existing on the fringes of society are, in fact, close to its gut, finely tuned to its central pulse, seeing all and feeling every change. He presents it for us as an everyman for the 21st century – a gifted storyteller with perfect comic timing and astonishing musicality.
If you have not had the chance to experience Terera in the National’s current Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or when he gigs, you are missing his rich, blues-tinged voice with its bass tones, bringing alive his resonant lyrics. He showcases a flair for multiple genres – Soul, Gospel, Blues, Country, folk-pop and good old acoustic rock, using just his voice and the two instruments. Fingers, palms and feet provide junky syncopation using any obvious flat surface – the guitar body, the floor, the thigh. All of this evokes an auditory sensation of story, given its emotional heart by the sublimely expressive blues-soaked chords Terera has composed with.
With just the opening bars, all 12 songs immediately connect emotionally, reaching in and grabbing us by the heart or the gut before you’ve heard or understood the lyrics or the sentiment driving them. By each song’s end, Terera has painted a picture of core memories which have shaped the remarkable, flawed human being before us.
Soho Jones’ ballad was a paradoxically humorous yet deeply moving, provocative and prophetic 90-minute play (no interval) with a powerful socio-political commentary. Playing for only 2 nights in the SJT Studio on May 13-14th, this was the Ballad’s world premiere and Terera’s first one-man show! For me, it was a narrative theme impressively reminiscent of the hugely influential 1976 Grammy-winning Album of The Year (incidentally, the year of his birth) Songs in The Key of Life by Stevie Wonder – an utter triumph.
He earned two well-deserved standing ovations from an energised audience post-catharsis! I am left asking just two questions… when can London have it back again and when will he write London’s next great original musical? Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice should be very, very worried. In the meantime, the BBC would be well-advised to take note: The Ballad of Soho Jones would make a unique and innovative radio play! Once this award-winning actor, musician, writer and film maker makes these unforgettable songs available on audio media, we will let you know!