As any marketing exec or child psychologist will tell you, a mis-chosen name can come back to haunt you. So when a play has a title like , there s an understandable pang of concern. Are you letting yourself in for a tortorous evening? In this case, the answer is no. Under Lisa Forrell s adept direction and aided by a trio of talented performers and a medley of bittersweet ballads, disaster is averted for this ‘jazz musical just transferred to the West End after a fringe stint at the Freedom Theatre in Soho.
Through the single, smoke-filled act, we learn the truth about the “slow drag”. Neither an allusion to a boring ordeal or the cigarette fixes the characters are in constant need of, it refers instead to the original name for the blues on the backstreets of New Orleans. The reference is an important one as the music is as central a character to this story as the lead players.
The script is based on the true story of jazz musician Billy Tipton who lived life as a man - as well as bandleader, husband and father - but was discovered in death to be a woman. A great shock to the rest of the world, with the exception of his wife of course. Despite the nature of the material, there are no titillating revelations in the play. From the beginning, we know the score. It s only a matter of analysis - picking at the scabs of regret and self-hatred which cloud the relationships of the central characters.
Johnny Christmas (alias Tipton) and his friend Chester compromise their identities for the sake of music. Female bandleaders and mulatto crooners are not allowed in the swing clubs of the 40s so Johnny dons a suit and Chester smears on body make-up. Though Liza Sadovy captures male mannerisms with incredible accuracy, Carson Kreitzer s script tips in Chester s favour. Not only does he get to philosophise on jazz and make love to the microphone (which Christopher Colquhoun does with smouldering ease), Chester is consumed with a guilt for betraying his race that Johnny shows no sign of for betraying her/his sex.
Johnny is consumed with much more toxic emotions - love and jealousy - for his wife June. Kim Criswell is remarkably full-bodied as June, and so is her voice. When she first hobbles onto the stage in three-inch stilettos, it s hard to believe she s the type every man - or woman - falls for. But then she starts to sing. At the end of Criswell s first solo, two men behind me gasped with delight. And so did I. Anyone could lose their heart to that voice and that music.