Early 20th-century movie star Buster Keaton’s most iconic moment was standing stock still while a house fell down on top of him. Much the same thing happens with When You Fall Down, James Dangerfield’s sung-through, one-man musical homage to Keaton. Dangerfield stands tall-ish, but his show collapses around him.
In seven, isolated segments, Dangerfield, impersonating the actor with waistcoat and white face, presents moments from Keaton’s career. We see him as a wide-eyed rookie in the movie biz in 1917, singing a hymn to the film camera. We see him supporting his pal Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle during the Virginia Rappe affair in 1921. We see him struggling with alcoholism in later life, as the industry evolves around him.
There are some nice moments, particularly when clips of Keaton’s films—the house collapsing in Steamboat Bill, Jr., the train crash in The General—are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. But as an attempt to intimately explore the life of an icon, When You Fall Down doesn’t come off at all.
That’s not because of Dangerfield’s performance – he’s a perfectly capable actor and singer. And it’s not to do with his composing – the songs are saccharine but serviceable. It’s to do with the musical’s bizarre structure. Each short snippet of Keaton’s life is a song, with almost no dialogue at all in between. It’s as if we’re watching a normal musical, but with the narrative bits taken out. So it all ends up disjointed and incoherent.