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Boy In a Dress (Manchester)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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La John Joseph (who wrote and performs in this autobiographical play) has a non-specific sexual gender. You’d think that becoming a third gendered person would be a turning point in life. Yet for John Joseph it seems instead to reflect indecision rather than self-belief. In one of the many philosophical and literary asides in the script, he tells us we learn what we are by deciding what we are not; and being a man makes him/her feel like a rapist.

The story is crammed with incident but not much insight. Considering the potential of the background material you’d expect more drama and greater emotional impact. Raised catholic by a much married and highly sensual mother John Joseph moved into modelling and cabaret. Yet John Joseph’s decisions seem pragmatic, even opportunistic, rather than revelatory. S/he was committed to the catholic faith to the extent of joining their anti-abortion league. Yet there is no sense of betrayal as awareness of the Church’s intolerance towards non-heterosexuals becomes apparent. This guarded approach undermines the dramatic potential of the play.

The writer's reserved approach at times makes him seem self-absorbed rather than self-aware. S/he acknowledges that modelling reduced him/her to an object but s/he seems to apply the same reductive approach to other aspects of the autobiography. Exposure at an early age to potentially dangerous characters is rationalised on the grounds that young boys have to hang around in public toilets as librarians are alert to truants.

When the script demands an emotional response John Joseph ducks the issue and uses material written by others. Some of the most powerful and harrowing songs ever written (by Cobain, Cohen and Smith) are utilised to convey the feelings that John Joseph is reluctant to articulate. But John Joseph performs the songs in a superficial cabaret style that drains the emotional content. Worse, s/he has replaced the native Scouse accent with an exaggerated form of Received Pronunciation that sounds artificial and insincere.

Director Sarah Chew shares the star’s indecisiveness. Myridden Wannell’s untidy set reflects the bohemian lifestyle and Chew makes good use of a well-worn wardrobe for entrances and exits. But too often she has John Joseph resort to dashing around the stage and climbing over objects. At times the director’s artistic sensibilities overwhelm clarity – it is hard to work out what is intended by having John Joseph painted blue while singing "Pissing in the River."

Anyone who tells their autobiography on stage has to accept that it will involve revealing things that you might prefer to conceal. John Joseph shows a surprising level of caution that blunts the impact of the play.

- Dave Cunningham


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