5 O’clock Bells
Directed by Brian Quirt
Starring Pierre Brault
* out of **

The 2009-10 season opened Oct. 8 with 5 O’clock Bells, a play about the person who made the Guess Who possible.

You may not have heard of Lenny Breau, who graced Winnipeg with his presence for only a relatively short time and whose son, Chet, still performs here. But you certainly would have heard of Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame. If it wasn’t for the lessons Bachman learned at the feet of Breau, he wouldn’t have become anywhere near the level of guitarist that he did.

Those who were blessed with the opportunity to see Breau live — as this reviewer was on a few occasions — know the virtuoso guitarist that Breau was. At one time, he was hailed as the best jazz guitarist in the world. Unfortunately, they may also know an individual who succumbed to the temptations of the musical life — much like many others such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That temptation was heroin.

It was this that made seeing Breau a chancy affair. Sometimes, he would be playing to the angels. Other times, he would be so stoned he’d be falling out of his chair. Pawn shops were one of his favourite friends and, over the years, he pawned almost every guitar he ever owned — including the 1956 Gretsch that Chet Atkins gave him.

In the end, it was the junkie habit that outdid him. He was found dead floating in his pool in L.A. without any water in his lungs, leading the L.A. authorities to believe it a homicide. The case is still open.

But the case about 5 O’clock Bells isn’t.

Beginning somewhat slowly, it quickly picked up pace until the full-house audience was fully captured by this one-man play written and performed by Pierre Brault and directed by Brian Quirt.

Perhaps it was because the voices had not been established yet that the audience’s initial reaction was one of confusion. Voices, not roles, as there was only one role: that of the virtuosic Breau who performed every single one of at least a dozen different voices (including that of four females). How he managed to keep these voices distinct, and remember which one to use, was absolutely amazing.

The play opens with Breau, at about age four, at home with his parents. By that time, Breau was already learning guitar. His parents are talking about taking him on the road with their country and western band. They argue about this. Brault plays both sides of that argument. When he plays the mother, he faces audience right. When the father, left. Once these voices have been established, they recur throughout the play. Never once during the hour and a half performance does he get them wrong.

Brault doesn’t play guitar — or, at least, not in this performance. But how do you have a play about Lenny Breau — or any guitar play, for that matter — without having some guitar music. Well, you could merely play some of that guitarist’s CDs. 5 O’clock Bells offers another solution – the exquisite guitar playing of Paul Bordeau who knew and performed with Breau when he was living in Toronto.

The weakness of the play lies in its portrayal of Breau as a constant infant needing every woman in his life (and some of the men, such as Chet Atkins) to take care of him. If that were the case, they didn’t do a great job of it. No, Breau was on a constant course of self-destruction in which he finally succeeded on Aug. 12, 1984 in Los Angeles.

This play is a must-see for any guitar player, jazz fan or anyone just plain interested in good theatre.

5 O’ clock Bells runs until Oct. 24 at the MTC’s Tom Hendry (Warehouse) Theatre.