“You can take those fragments and make a crown.” So says La JohnJoseph, who writes and performs this two-hour autobiographical show. You’ve got to admire someone baring their soul on stage and describing the travails of his life with both his sanity and his high heels intact.
Like our hero himself, however, Boy in a Dress has a bit of an identity crisis of its own, sitting uncomfortably between stage play, cabaret and performed-blog, the latter the format which would best suit the current text but the former the style to which the production, at least initially, aligns itself. Joseph tells his story fluently enough and with occasional wit. But, at least for me, it lacks the tonal variation or dramatic flair to make it emotionally engaging or theatrically satisfying.
La JohnJoseph takes us from his deprived Liverpool family through to Catholic school to New York and becoming variously a drag queen, a prostitute and a lesbian horoscope writer. So far so what. It covers almost every gay hard luck story you’ve ever heard and, sadly, being true does not make these episodes interesting or dramatic. It is odd to be told someone’s personal story and yet for it to ring false. There’s an unexpected air of recitation rather than ownership in Joseph’s performance, not helped by his eyes often avoiding ours. One feels that him alone in a spotlight talking to us for an hour with some of his incidental songs (terrifically supported by Jordan Hunt) would more suit the intimacy of his story than a two-act show which the material doesn’t require.
Designer Cleo Pettit’s extraordinary and imaginative design turns the normally elegant Ovalhouse into a disjointed mindscape of detritus complete with wonky wardrobe and chalk-writing on the walls. The early appearance of video projection bodes well for the evening taking us into a confused life which Joseph will try and make sense of with us. But the lighting design, save for one striking moment in the first half, misses every opportunity for spectacle which this wonderful setting offers, depriving the production of what should have been a key ingredient in animating this evening of memories.
If Joseph the person has been trying to make sense of his own life by writing this show, Joseph the writer needs to make sense of how best to tell that story theatrically. Although ultimately less than the sum of its parts, this is exactly the kind of project which fringe theatre is ideally suited for. One hopes it’s not the last we’ll hear of this boy – in or out of a dress – and his story.