Writer: Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal
Director: Edwina Strobl
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
She may revel in the nickname the ‘Backwoods Barbie’ but like much of Dolly Parton, it is a front, a carefully painted image of wigs, makeup and of course that counter-levered chest. Behind the image is a woman in charge of a multi-million-Dollar industry with legendary business acumen. It’s no wonder she’s a role model for many and a guiding angel in Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal’s poignant and thought-provoking new play The Poetry We Make.
For young couple Elliott and Robin all seems to be idyllic, she’s a hairdresser with a wardrobe that threatens to take over their flat, he’s a bookish librarian with a football obsession. It’s a setup that can be found in countless homes up and down the country. Elliott, though, has a passion for Dolly Parton to the extent that she talks to a vision of Parton, resplendent in blue gingham and knee-high cowboy boots.
Not everything is rosy in the house, however, and as the gender interchangeable names hint, Robin has a secret that slowly both he and Robin must come to terms with. As Robin begins to question his gender, Elliott finds herself increasingly questioning if she is to blame.
Told through a series of flashbacks and accompanied by a smattering of Parton hits, performed live on stage, we get explore gender, identity and what these actually say about us.
It’s a carefully and sensitive construct by Blackwell-Pal. Told with plenty of humour but never shying away from its subject of gender identity, Edwina Strobl’s direction carefully avoids any risk of the humour being used as a cruel attack. We never see Robin’s transformation into a woman and the piece is all they of humour but never shying away from its subject of gender identity, Edwina Strobl’s direction carefully avoids any risk of the humour being used as a cruel attack. We never see Robin’s transformation into a woman and the piece is all the stronger for it, focusing on the emotions involved rather than appearance.
There are strong performances throughout the four strong ensemble. Elena Voce brings a sense of frustrated and confused humanity to what could otherwise be a harsh and inwardly focused Elliott. Elijah Harris’ Robin is a much quieter, more sensitive reading, at times bordering just a little too close to over sensitivity and risking a lack of contrast and development, but a performance with an intensity that draws us in. Mia Hall revels in the larger than life embodiment of Ms Parton and creates the musical backdrop with Conor Gormally on guitar.
The tiny space of The Marlborough Theatre does create its own challenges, but ones the company overcomes well, creating a piece that manages to provoke thought and debate without coming across as a politically correct lecture. Ms Parton is renowned for her touching torch songs and would surely be proud of this testament to love, regardless of what body that love takes.
Reviewed on 7 May at The Marlborough Theatre
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