Dunstan Bruce was on vocals with Leeds anarchists Chumbawamba who were the most unlikely pop stars ever, and who can forget when they dumped an ice bucket over then Deputy PM John Prescott at the Brits.
Dunstan was at the heart of their journey from West Yorkshire squats to the top of the charts with the anthemic Tubthumping, which despite all the odds made it as high as number two in the charts.
The band split up a decade ago and now he’s is back with a new one-man play, Am I Invisible Yet?, which visits Leeds Playhouse. Not surprisingly written by an anarchist living in our messed up world it’s billed as a rollercoaster of despair, anger, love and, ultimately, hope. Dunstan Bruce says he’s offering the audience a riotous journey that will resonate with anyone who once thought they could change the world.
So what is one man show all about?
It’s basically my personal journey around the idea of: ‘What do you do when you reach middle age, when you’re still angry, and want to remain relevant and visible? Where’s your place in the world?’ I’m taking people on an existential voyage using poetry, prose, music and film. To be clear, it’s not a cozy fireside chat reminiscing about my ‘Tubthumping’ past, more a vital blast of angst, anger and desire. It’s a love letter to hope, humanity and the haphazard heart. It’s full of humour too – it’s not a po-faced lecture.
Does playing a major regional theatrical powerhouse like the Playhouse feel like something of a homecoming?
Coming back to Leeds always does. Whether it’s performing with Interrobang – the band I formed in the mid-2010s – or doing this show. It’s weird, I still feel northern, that doesn’t leave you. This is where I grew up for the second time, this is where my peers are, this is where my closest friends are, this place is full of so many abiding memories.
But Dunstan you’re based down south now.
I want to let people see I haven’t lost that fire, that desire after emigrating south. I’m not going to lie; I want to impress people with the show. I want to blow their socks off. And I kind of still want to be thought of as one of theirs, one of the community carrying on with the continuum of dissent.
Were you surprised by the level of mainstream success the band achieved?
It was totally bonkers. We never set out to have a hit single, to be famous. We were happy being an independent band making a small living from constantly touring. It was an absolute blast. We’d found a way of getting it to work and it was incredible. When ‘Tubthumping’ happened though we grasped the moment with both hands, we jumped in, we took the risk because we had nothing to lose. We wanted the adventure, we wanted to do something different, we wanted to see what it was like being in the mainstream, trying to change the world from within. Turns out it was a pretty depressing place to be but, hey, we tried to do something with that platform, with that fame which soon turned into infamy!
Do you still feel like you can change the world?
In a word, yes. I think we are changing the world every day in small, small ways. Maybe the goalposts moved, maybe the bar lowered, maybe my expectations changed, maybe I turned into a realist but yes, I came to realise that change can occur in loads of different ways. It doesn’t have to be some huge magnificent gesture, or a massive seismic shift, to feel like you’re making a difference.
In what way?
Touring the show, and doing the post-show Q&A, has helped me understand that maybe I’m contributing every day, nudging people, pushing people, inspiring people, irritating people even to get back into the fray.
The words ‘I get knocked down but I get up again’ from that hit single are displayed in neon on the side of Leeds Playhouse, how does that make you feel?
Ridiculously proud! Alice Nutter once said, “It’s better to be a one hit wonder than a no hit wonder”, and that always made me chuckle. She was responding to people accusing us of selling out as if having one hit was something we should be ashamed of.
You describe your play as ‘a rollercoaster of despair, anger, love and hope’, would you say that you’re more hopeful than angry these days?
I’d say I’m a bit of a swinger. One day I’m incredibly depressed by the news; the next I see some small action that some group of people has done, and I think, “Yes! Things can change!” Part of the show is about a younger generation of artists and activists who give me hope. Lots of hope. It’s not over yet.
So Dunstan, Should we actually be angrier?
What’s that slogan? “If you’re not angry, you’re not actually paying attention.” I think it’s more that we can’t give up, we must go on. We have to!
What kind of conversations do you hope the show will elicit?
One of the things the show manages to do is create a feeling of community; that we are quite literally all in this together. Not in some condescending, bullshit way that the Tories try to make us believe. The post-show Q&As in particular are incredibly rewarding because that becomes a conversation, a discussion that we all share in, that isn’t just me preaching to the converted. It’s about us all sharing our experiences and our feelings about getting older, how we stay relevant, stay engaged. And it means that people don’t feel alone.
Dunstan Brice’s Am I Invisible Yet? is in the Courtyard theatre at Leeds Playhouse on Saturday 26 November. Book online at www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or at box office on 0113 213 7700.
You can follow Dunstan Bruce on Facebook and Twitter
Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here
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