Madame Tussaud is a household name all over the world. Visitors flock in their thousands to witness her legacy and study the waxworks that continue to appear as symbols of her creative genius. However, few stop to wonder about her own life and this is what makes this sophisticated one woman show, both written and performed by Judith Paris, so compelling and unusual.
Waxing Lyrical is set in 1837, 13 years before Madame Tussaud’s death and two years after she ended her hectic touring schedule and created her first London base in the Baker Street Bazaar with her two sons. As the play opens, we are met with a vision that will recur throughout; a woman dressed simply in white bonnet and black smock, bent over a wax sculpture, clearly toiling late into the night. It is immediately apparent that this is a woman of unique skill, a perfectionist, quite possibly a workaholic. Most importantly, she exudes an unrelenting passion for her art, a quality which will carry her through life experiences that are sometimes challenging, often harrowing, always intriguing.
The events of Tussaud’s life unfold before us as easily as the molten wax which becomes her life’s blood. Streams of thought and consciousness are beautifully articulated through an authentic foreign accent as the script bounces back and forth in time and the lone character frequently delves into memory. As an audience, we rarely have to concentrate too hard; the production is markedly simple, yet conveys incredible detail and depth. This is due to not only a skilful script but a truly accomplished actor and Paris excels, not only as a writer and a historian, but a performer.
Happenings such as Tussaud’s move to Paris as a young girl, her first-hand experiences of the atrocities of the French Revolution and the loss of a child are brought to vivid life and tinged with emotion that is spine-tinglingly raw. Under the superbly sensitive direction of Gillian Lynne we feel the delight of the wide-eyed child as she learns the extraordinary craft that will eventually propel her to fame and the agony of the young mother as she grieves for her baby. We can almost smell the blood on the guillotine.
All too often one-handers can lack atmosphere and energy. It takes a talented actor to hold an audience’s interest and attention throughout 80 minutes, but Paris achieves this with ease, leaving us needing to know more about the remarkable woman she has chosen to portray.
Peter McCarthy’s elegiac musical composition and arrangement, Clive Derbyshire’s imaginative sound design and Steve Lowe’s clever lighting complete an informative, atmospheric and truly memorable theatrical experience.
- Helen Macdonald