REVIEW: Blanche and Butch (by Birds of Paradise Theatre Company)
Eden Court, Inverness (*****)
Before the curtain raises on this fascinating, challenging and quite brilliant show properly, disabled drag queen Blanche crawls onto the stage.
The piano introduction for the ballad I’ve Never Been To Me starts playing, and Blanche starts lip-syncing along in earnest – only to have the mood shattered by somebody behind the curtain screaming, “Why do you have to be such a f****** c***?!”
If there was a more perfect tone-setter for the play Blanche and Butch, I would be surprised. This is a play that mixes emotional honesty with camp savagery to hilarious – and occasionally devastating – effect.
The minute the curtain raises and Blanche joins her fellow queens Butch and Bette in the dressing room ahead of their performance of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it’s immediately clear from their interaction that these are three people who know each other.
From the bluntness of the sex jokes they cackle through to the casual jibes and abuse of each other as friends and colleagues, there’s a lived-in quality to their interaction – these men have known each other for a long time, and it shows.
Yet there is also a performative quality to their relationship, one that slowly deconstructs itself over the hour we spend with them as their ambitions, regrets and jealousies are laid bare – issues that come to a head once they find out a producer from London is in the audience.
Indeed, there’s something deconstructive about this entire production – the play doesn’t so much challenge its audience’s possible preconceptions about disability and sexuality as it does with a wanton and gleeful gusto, smashing them into dust with a visceral and pinpoint use of language, music and song.
Yet at no point is it a play that demands to be seen as about “ISSUES” in big capital letters. The themes of the piece largely manage to raise themselves organically through the setting, the characters, and their interaction, which is a testament to the clever scripting of playwright and performer Robert Softley Gale.
It helps as well that the play is just really bloody funny throughout much of its runtime – unfortunately in a way unsuitable for quoting in a family publication (but trust me, it’s hilarious). While the play does develop darkness and drama to it as the relationship between the three men slowly curdles, the play is liberally peppered with a beautiful, caustic and bluntly sexual wit (in the greatest spirit of UK drag).
It’s anchored by stellar performances from the three men at the heart of the play – Robert (as Blanche), Garry Robson (as Butch) and Kinny Gardner (as Bette) make each person’s spite and anger with their situation evident and believable.
Blanche’s naked ambition and anger with being typecast as a “disabled” actor, Butch’s need to mentor masking his own worries and insecurities about his role as a father-of-six in a wheelchair, and Bette’s concealed disgust at slumming it around venues he’s too certain he’s better than – all of these bounce off each other. When things do explode, they do so with an inevitability that the performers sell brilliantly.
It’s ably helped along by the supporting cast. BSL interpreter Amy Cheskin, stage manager and audio describer Cara Ballingall, and particularly Amelia Cavallo as the musician Keys all do excellent work as characters in their own right while working to provide an experience that the entire audience is able to enjoy – while also highlighting the casual sexism of the three men at its heart.
Those three men whose story the play tells are deeply flawed people – sometimes funny, sometimes petty, sometimes tragic, and sometimes awful, but always deeply human.
It’s a brutal, vital refuting of the idea of disabled people as somehow other to “the rest of us”. If the play has a mission statement, it comes in Blanche’s – and Robert’s – showstopping soliloquy towards the back end of the production, serving as a deconstruction of the idea of big inspirational speeches in productions about disabled people stripped of the “Oprah b*******”, as he so succinctly puts it.
“You want to think my life is so different to your’s?” he spits, before adding with a sickly venom, “F*** you.” It’s an angry, shocking and utterly vital statement.
Five minutes after this caustic rebuttal, Blanche and the rest of the cast burst into a bawdy, filthy and utterly hilarious song about “intersectional intercourse”. It’s just as angry, just as shocking and just as vital a statement.
It’s that blend of filth and fury that makes the play what it is. Birds of Paradise have crafted a vital examination of what it means to be disabled, to be LGBT, and to be human. And they’ve done all of this while packing in jokes that I only wish could be allowed to reach print.
Blanche and Butch was performed at Eden Court as part of Luminate – Scotland’s Creative Aging Festival. For more information, go to www.luminatescotland.org