Coming on to the darkened stage of this basement London theatre, strumming guitar, Loudon Wainwright III unexpectedly encountered a mic’ stand, causing a minor stumble – maybe a Freudian Trip – quickly recovered from. It got an early laugh. Surviving Twin (as you may have read in an earlier feature on Americana-UK) is his one man theatre performance mixing songs, monologues and a backdrop of photo’s and film clips. The songs are his own, the monologues are his father’s writings – from his column in Life magazine – and the photo’s often show fathers and sons – Wainwright III, his father Wainwright Junior, and his grandfather the originator of the dynasty – a line of descent broken when Loudon Wainwright III announced his first born son would be Rufus – to the disgust of his mother, Martha Wainwright, who exclaimed “but that’s a dogs name”.
Whilst Loudon Wainwright Jnr wrote on many and wide ranging topics in Life, for the purposes of Surviving Twin it is the columns that give an insight into the family dynamic that Loudon Wainwright III has concentrated on – and in particular on those that illuminate his father’s experience of the father / son dynamic either up or down the family tree. His opening song set the scene for this theatre piece “Last week I attended a family affair / And a few remarked on my recent growth of facial hair / “you look just like your father did, with that beard” someone said / I answered back “I am him”, even though my old man’s dead”. Tensions, resolved and unresolved, are the topics for discussion this afternoon. ” I didn’t want to be him / Well at first I did / I loved and looked up to him / as a little kid”. Things soon change though and take on an Oedipal tone “First we fought for my mother / that afforded little joy” – but it’s a complicated dynamic: fathers, sons, mothers, first children; complicated feelings deftly handled with a light touch.
On a stage with few props Loudon Wainwright III represents all the characters – including the tailor who dressed Loudon Junior in his first London suit – described as coming a little late for his James Bond days but still more distinguished than his American ones. And Loudon changes into this very suit on stage, becoming ever more his father as he recites the joyful self-indulgence which accompanied its purchase. There’s more mirror imagery in Loudon’s songs to his own children – I knew your mother and Father and Son which are not so distant from his father’s musings on attempts at resetting familial understandings at Christmas or discovering unexpected gestures of affection from home movies taken by the first Loudon Wainwright. It captures a truth about generational arguments repeating down the chain and each new set of sons coming to terms with their fathers, in two cases after their deaths.
Loudon Wainwright III is engaging throughout this ninety minutes of reflection – often self deprecating when talking or singing of himself. After interludes on guitar, banjo and ukulele, he finally retires to the piano for a last song talking about the “heavy shit”. In C features an honest assessment “Here’s another song in C / With my favourite protagonist – Me” and there’s more honesty, perhaps surprisingly honest, throughout when the subject moves to his mother and stepmother and his own family coming together and fall apart “I grew up and had a family / and it broke apart so easily /…/ I blame myself…and I blame her / the cruel and foolish people that we were”. Never less than interesting – and with a lot of wry laughs along the way – Surviving Twin is a show that successfully matches revelation with affectionate nostalgia.