Comeback Special (Shoreditch Town Hall)

Greg Wohead’s new show is an attempt to recreate Elvis’s iconic gig

Greg Wohead in Comeback Special
Greg Wohead in Comeback Special
© Richard Eaton

In 1968, aged 33, Elvis Presley recorded a television special. He hadn’t performed live in seven years and other young artists – The Beatles, the Stones – had taken his mantle. He sat on a small square stage, dressed entirely in black leather, surrounded by hysterical young women, and he won back the fans. The gig became known as the ’68 Comeback Special: a mythic moment, a resurrection of sorts.

Almost fifty years later, Greg Wohead is watching the recording online in a hotel room. It’s 2014 and, on that recording, Elvis is still 33, still live, still charismatic. He hasn’t yet got fat and gone to seed, or squeezed himself into those tacky jumpsuits. This is Elvis the icon, black quiff and black leathers – masculine, handsome, and young.

Comeback Special is an attempt to recreate that gig, or fragments of it, with Wohead – also 33, gentle, gawky – transforming himself into Elvis. It’s an impossible task. The audience is so lively, the gig itself is so live, but most of all, Elvis is just so Elvis. How does anyone become him – the King of Rock and Roll?

That, of course, is what thousands of Elvis impersonators around the world try to do all the time, and Comeback Special is partly about them – their fixation on this man and the art of imitation. But it’s also about Elvis himself: a forensic, even obsessive, examination of him, as if Wohead is searching for some secret or other.

Eschewing the costume, the usual crux of impersonators, Wohead focuses in on mannerisms. He starts matter-of-factly, talking the show into existence, describing Elvis’s actions – the hair flicks and hip rolls – and speaking lyrics flatly into a microphone, almost like a court transcript. As he warms up, little by little, he takes Elvis on. His singing voice – Elvis’s singing voice – comes as a surprise. He catches the swagger, the sex appeal, the smile. His attention is exacting – so concentrated and precise – and the process of transforming is transfixing: both electric and ghoulish. There’s the air of a séance: a comeback special.

The show zooms in on one moment – maybe eight seconds long. Guitarist Charlie Hodge picks a piece of lint of Elvis’s face, hands it to a woman in the audience, who pockets it like treasure. Looping the sound recording, Wohead choreographs us one by one – fans screaming, swooning, straining to see and scrabbling for some piece of him – until this moment comes to life. It’s a bizarre oxymoron – something invisible and someone iconic. Is this the most significant piece of fluff in history? It becomes a keepsake, almost a religious relic. Elvis’s words repeat like a record: "Never ceases to amaze me, babe…Never ceases to amaze me babe."

Comeback Special is also about permanence – in particular the permanence of pop culture, despite its constant churn and reinvention. Caught on camera, Elvis might as well be caught in amber. He’s ageless and immortal. Wohead isn’t – neither as an artist, nor as a person – and, at 33, he’s just starting to show his age, perhaps just starting to feel the pressure of time. Is that what he’s searching for, then? The secret of youth or the secret of superstardom? The impossible dream, you might say.

Comeback Special runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until 26th March, then tours.