Crude, noisy, rough and not quite ready, Paper Dolls is a play (with songs) about Filipino drag queens in Tel Aviv who perform show tunes and disco hits by night and work as carers for old Orthodox Jews by day.
Indhu Rubasingham’s lively production of Philip Himberg’s play, based on a documentary film by Tomer Heymann, sets up so many clashes, cultural and otherwise, that you could re-score the piece for an ensemble of cymbals: there’s the immigration question during the second intifada, the gay club scene in the shadow of the Hasidic area, divided worship at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and a tug-of-love over a dying old man between his daughter and his nurse.
But firstly there are the five Paper Dolls themselves (so called because they make costumes out of newsprint), including two brothers at loggerheads, who come on as a more tawdry version of the Lady Boys of Bangkok with a repertoire of songs like “Venus,” “This is My Life” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” squabbling back stage and sending their pay packets back home.
This music is contrasted with the more soulful chanting and singing of a shadowy chorus of Israelis in black coats, hats and black ringlets – another sort of drag, perhaps – who stalk the show and represent another cultural extreme on a concrete design by Richard Kent that resembles the National Theatre writ small and revolves effectively for the interior, backstage and “show time” insets.
In the middle, the Dolls are the subject of out-gay Yossi’s (Tom Berish) documentary film, which then implicates Yossi’s mother (Jane Bertish) and, more poignantly, one of the Dolls’ patients, ancient Chaim (Harry Dickman), who’s dying of cancer; his daughter Adina (Caroline Wildi) has arrived from New York to take him home.
The first hour is over-microphoned and over-assertively acted, but things start to improve with a touching Friday night dinner at Chaim’s followed by a garish “Hava nagila” medley for the benefit of Yossi’s mum, performed in skimpy dresses and coloured wigs; the troupe now resemble a nightmare quintet of young Carol Channings.
After an explosion in the city, and amid the ensuing chaos, one of the Dolls, Cheska (Benjamin Wong) is arrested and eventually deported, Chaim’s carer Sally (the most intriguing performance, by Francis Jue) takes charge of various crises – including the reduction of the act from five dolls to three – and the show dissolves in an irresistible company soft rock version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
There’s a certain amount of theatrical metaphor hanging around in all this, not really supported by the dramaturgy. Still, the subject is strong enough to survive flaws, and the opening of hearts across a cultural chasm is always cheering. On opening night, three of the original Paper Dolls, now in London, one of them a dead ringer for Ella Fitzgerald, took the stage and seemed to approve.