DramaReviewSouth West

I Am Not Myself These Days – The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

Adaptor: Tom Stuart
Writer: Josh Kilmer-Purcell
Director: Nick Bagnall

Choreographer: Ann Yee
Reviewer: Lucy Corley


Why are not more people making theatre like this?

I Am Not Myself These Days is difficult to describe – like its leading lady, the show doesn’t conform to any standards of ‘normal’, so words do not really do it justice.

Adapted by actor Tom Stuart, who also plays all the parts, the show is the autobiography of Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s life on the drag circuits in 1990s New York, as told by his drag persona, Aqua Disiac. Perpetually drunk or hungover, Aqua stumbles and slurs about the set, grinning as she narrates her life with an irresistible camp charm.

Every now and then she breaks into a routine, and Tom Stuart gets the drag showgirl act spot on, lip synching, hip-wiggling and dancing like a diva while wearing seven-inch, bright red heels. Larger-than-life Aqua stares the audience down as she tells us of the physical pain of being a drag queen – and why it is worth it if it takes her away from perpetual fear of being a disappointment, replacing it with attention and rapture.

Scenes from her life are cut together with sharp blackouts and lighting changes, representing her passing out and attempting to dig out the memory of the night before. She goes home with a different guy each night, until she meets Jack – also played by Stuart in a deep bass voice, with a conviction that manages to create great chemistry between the two characters. To Aqua’s astonishment, Jack seems more interested in her as Josh than as Aqua, but his lifestyle is even more addictive and dangerous than Josh’s own.

The production carries its audience to the frightening, exhilarating extremes of drug and alcohol abuse, gradually exposing the characters’ deep yearning for love and trust. The tone of the play is far from miserable or self-pitying, however: Stuart combines excellent comic timing with a dry, witty script, and without spoiling too much, you need to see what the fish are for.

Aqua is refreshingly apolitical, existing in her own glittering, alcoholic galaxy, and honestbecause her whole persona is formed of layer upon layer of a person desperate to be heard. Doing a one-man show in a female American accent is no mean feat for a British actor with a background in Shakespeare, and occasionally Stuart’s accent falters a little. At one point in this performance, the show has to be stopped completely in order to clear up broken glass – but the audience doesn’t care – judging from the comments as they leave the theatre, they are completely bowled over by the power of his characterisation.

In Stuart’s intensely personal, vulnerable performance, nothing is off-limits – sex, love, abuse, visits to the toilet – all are described by him through words and movement. His performance style has an extraordinary generosity: it feels like his whole body and mind are open to the audience, allowing them to vicariously experience the extremes of glamour, excitement and agony that are Aqua’s life.

The show is not in the least sentimental, but leaving the theatre feels like losing an irreplaceable friend and the audience doesn’t want to go. Because this story is so far outside of what is generally considered ‘normal’, the love at its heart is pure, simple and without any expectations of what love should look like.

I Am Not Myself These Days is raw, honest, and imperfect – and that’s exactly what theatre should be. Go and see it.

Runs until 23February 2016, then touring | Image: Manuel Vasson

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