Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writers: Tim Bell with Havoc Theatre

Directors: Laurence Cook and Hannah Kew

Reviewer:  John Kennedy

Tragi-comic, pathos heart-string tugging, this Bearded Lady made quite an impression on last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and might well have become a minor cult hit: if only by a whisker – if only someone had had the heart (and comb) to tell her. We are forewarned that she is a slave to both her make-up mantra – ‘Moisture, oil and comb’ and the merits of Phil Collins’ back catalogue. Given his recent minor success atonement autobiography, we might allow her that – possibly. All things follicly focused, The Bearded Lady takes us through seventy-five minutes of facial extension existentialism – is it trivial hirsute or deep thought toupée or not toupée? It soon becomes evident that The Bearded Lady – as performed with disarming vulnerability by Tim Bell, dedicated cricket fan and East Anglian separatist, is a quixotic, sometimes rambling narrative of unsettling conceits. Comedy comes as relief, empathy sometimes compromised by frustrated pity – if not a little annoyance.

The snug set comprises an actor’s dressing table and an array of disparate costumes, all having seen better days and wearers. Cheryl, as we might understand her to be, apologises for the untimely absence of her husband/manager/Svengali, Richard. He has had an accident – but the show must go on. She’ll spin it on the hoof and eschew any prepared audience participation. With ambivalent reassurance, she doesn’t have the code to the gun cabinet anyway.

In a series of colliding parallel narratives and surreal dissembling we begin to realise that Richard is a fantasy construct enabling the bearded lady to escape into her fragile and needy imaginings. Some might intuit in this narrative a less than subtle subtextual pillory of Hipsters – true or not, few would argue with the sentiment. We are introduced to the pantheon of famous bearded ladies through history, most of them cruelly exploited as travelling freak-show attractions. Increasing disassociation and fantastical obsession with glossy mag fashionista paradigms of credibility expose the visceral fragility of her desperate ennui. The roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd echo-haunt the empty chambers of her broken heart. Her only solace is found in surrender. Just perhaps her Shangri-La moment, her life changing event horizon, beckons just beyond the crash-barriers at the much frequented, on-tour, M5 Gordano Services. It is but a momentary fugue, a Welcome Break from counting cats-eyes for something else better to do. And there’s always Richard of course.

This ingenious, intimate performance is a touching tableau of curious, compelling frustrations, of a soul’s flailing failed and futile dashed ambitions. ‘You have to want people to become the person you want them to be.’ At times the streams and screams of consciousness struggle to convince there will ever be resolution to this desperate and disparate vortex of self-compensating narcissism. Perhaps the real freaks of Nature are those unable to see others beneath the skin?

Reviewed on 3 February 2017| Image: Contributed

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