Bird of Paradise Theatre’s Blanche & Butch is 75 minutes of ostentatious, exaggerated, theatrical, sober, serious-minded, crap-cutting, top-quality and freakishly stylish entertainment.
We’re backstage with the three blokes from the once-glorious disabled drag act, ‘Heelz n Wheelz’, now reduced to touring their production of ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’ in run-down venues, in back-water towns, in the anonymous and grim north of England. Baring their chests and their souls, seatbelts need to be firmly fastened for an exhilarating, bumpy ride of high camp and heart-breaking candour.
From the moment Robert Softley Gale as Blanche crawls round the front of the sheer-black, ruched, curtains like a living Francis Bacon study, eyes kohled into black cavernous holes, stark against the white base-paint of the clown, the tone is set for a ‘f**k you, I’m me, and you need to get over it’ kind of show. Topless, with sparkly, heart-shaped nipple tassels and matching thong, he writhes on the floor in white tights and ballet shoes, lip-synching Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, until the curtain rises behind him and he rolls backwards into the backstage dressing room where the rest of the cast are waiting to unfold the drama.
The t-shirt worn by Garry Robson’s Butch shouts ‘Piss on Pity’, which in no way says it all, but is not bad as a starting point. What follows is a simply rational rail against boxes, whether it’s ticking them as a token gesture to fulfil PC diversity requirements, or putting people in them so lazy, hackneyed assumptions can then be made about them. Within this there is also an appeal to understand that no matter what body the human being is in, the human being is still just busy being human. In one of Gale’s searing monologues he tellingly relates that, as a man in a wheelchair, before coming out as ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, he had to first come out as just ‘sexual’.
Gale, Robson and Kinny Gardner as Bette all give blistering performances. The writing is sharp and witty and in between the Abba and Gloria Gaynor numbers there are some poignant and moving ballads by composer Tayo Akinbode. Amelia Cavallo, who plays keyboard and lends her significant singing ability to the musical numbers, also has one of the best lines in the show as she rants about being a ‘vulva of invisibility’ as she ensures another marginalised section of society gets their moment to have their say. BSL interpreter Amy Cheskin, in deep red wig and matching stripper heels, as always brings something far more entertaining than is strictly necessary to this particular party.
Gale, here as writer and performer, like the late, great Francis Bacon, uses his work to express the condition of humanity as he lives it. So for anyone who has ever experienced a patronising ‘You’re really not bad, considering…’ from whatever well of ignorance it springs, for whatever reason, this one’s for you.
Runs 13th – 14th Oct