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Jasper Rees On ... Finding His Horn

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Jasper Rees is the writer of I Found My Horn, adapted from his book of the same name, which runs at the Hampstead Theatre later this month (10 to 28 November 2009).

The story recounts how, after a lay-off of 25 years, Rees seeks redemption via the sixteen feet of treacherous brass tubing he never mastered in his youth. Resuming his old French horn, he sets himself an impossible task: to perform a Mozart concerto in front of a paying audience of horn fanatics...

Is it weird seeing yourself being played onstage? Yes it is. There is no other answer. I dream of coming up with a more original answer to the obvious question, but yes, it is astonishingly strange to see myself morph into a character in a drama.

Weirder still is the response of audiences. I wrote the book on which I Found My Horn is based during, to avoid a cliché, a midlife rethink. Instead of leaping onto a motorbike, I took up my old musical instrument - a French horn, at which I was never at all good - and after a break of 22 years determined to play a solo in front of a paying audience of real horn players.

On the face of it it’s quite a niche narrative. But audiences genuinely seem to love it. Some even report having a sort of transcendental experience. Or so they tell us afterwards. “I haven’t laughed so much in years.” Or “I didn’t want it to end.” That’s what we’ve heard in sell-out runs at the Minerva in Chichester (just finished) and the Orange Tree (last February).

Of course I would say that though, wouldn’t I? I’ve got some tickets to shift at Hampstead Theatre, where I Found My Horn is on from 10 to 28 November. But though I say so myself, there is something slightly different about the play. There’s only one actor, not much of a set, and there is live musical performance. And at the heart of it is a performance of true humanity and boundless wit. “Where did you find him?” people ask me of the actor - and my co-writer - Jonathan Guy Lewis. The truth is he found me. He heard the book read on Radio 4 and contacted me. He also hadn't played the horn for the best part of two decades.

We wrote the play with the director Harry Burton in double quick time and within a few months were performing it at the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival. A run at the Tristan Bates Theatre followed last December. Some critics came and said nice things and we sold out. Jonathan has now stood up and attempted Mozart’s third horn concerto - which I did in public only once - nearly 50 times. But then he did ask to.

Every time I watch it, I always get a jolt when about ten minutes in my name is mentioned for the first time. “Jasper has been practising well,” says Jonathan, quoting one of my old school reports. Until then the play could have been about anyone. Suddenly it’s about me. Or, rather, “me”. It’s a difficult one. Almost everything that happens in the play happened to me. Very little of it is made up, apart from one fiery kick-up-the-arse speech given by my mentor Dave Lee (who has gracefully accepted his transformation into a stage character).

And yet I’ve always argued that the book, and therefore the play, is not just about me, and certainly not just about the horn. It’s meant to inspire recognition in anyone and everyone, because on a deeper level it’s about three things we all have felt: regret, obsession and humiliation. In dramatic terms, the greatest of these is humiliation. And what the story eventually yields is redemption. “Have I redeemed myself,” wonders 'Jasper' near the end. Where you wouldn’t dream of talking in a regular play, audiences seem quite happy to break with convention and answer out loud.

There have been times, I will admit, when I felt conflicted by the show’s success. The more curtain calls Jonathan gets, the more applause and love and acclaim, a little voice in me sitting in the back row is saying, “Er, people, actually that’s my story you’re applauding. That’s in fact me you’re all cheering to the rafters.” And then I remind myself not to be a twit.

I Found My Horn::L1370377281}, which stars Jonathan Guy Lewis, is at Hampstead Theatre from 10 to 28 November 2009.


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