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Review: Bullish (Camden People's Theatre)

This striking retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur comes from Milk Presents

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Bullish at Camden People's Theatre
© Ben Millar Cole

The recent spate of shows about trans lives has tended to centre on personal testimony. Welcome as it is to see trans stories represented, the form is not without its issues. Life stories are singular and, with that, specific. They risk setting one person's reality up as normative.

If that's at odds with the central tenets of trans lives, which insist upon spectra over old binaries, Bullish comes as an immediate counterpoint. It put four trans and gender-fluid performers onstage, a diverse bunch of individuals with their own personal styles. Holding hand mics and stood in a four-strong formation, the model becomes obvious - they're a non-binary band. Just as every girl group or boy band offers a choice of identities, so does the Bullish company. One might identify with Lucy Jane Parkinson's strong sure-footedness or with the artful ambiguity that Krishna Istha embraces. The point is the plurality.

As it did with Joan, a retelling of Joan of Arc's story, Milk Presents gives an old myth a trans twist – this time that of Theseus and the Minotaur. Inverting that story, Bullish identifies not with the original hero, but with the minotaur – a hybrid creature that's both bull and human, but not necessarily neatly half-and-half. It's locked, out of sight, in a subterranean labyrinth, at once a prison and a maze. It has one way in and no way out, and, as with any identity issue or transition, you step into it without a route map.

The parallel's as rich as an oxtail brew. Wearing gold horns, performers embrace the idea of being bull-ish – a bit male, but at the same time, off to one side. When Adam Robertson's Theseus turns up unexpectedly, he's a preening, cocksure prat – the peak of toxic masculinity. In sizing him up and taking him down, Bullish celebrates that very quality – the headstrong stubbornness it takes to be oneself.

Writer and director Lucy J Skilbeck delivers a radical message in a populist show, sitting David Lewington's strident pop songs next to nuanced spoken word. Bullish takes real care in communicating slippery ideas and even its turn to story is pointed. "Sometimes," the show insists, "the words aren't there" – and so, lacking the language to fit the fullness of trans lives, Bullish works with metaphor instead, wringing new meanings from an ancient myth.

At the same time, Skilbeck's content to set story to one side and "slip between myths" as their point so needs, and they segue deftly from Daedalus' labyrinth to the Icarus myth. His wax wings become a symbol of constructed identity, perhaps even super humanity, and, as performers paint on beards in black pen and glitter, Bullish advocates something similar. Beneath Joshua Pharo's warm golden light, designer Emma Bailey sits two wax pillars melting – old structures gradually falling away. Bullish pushes on elsewhere – a celebration of choice that never loses sight of the struggle of choosing, but lays the scope of options out in full sight. It's a big, quick step up.

Bullish runs at Camden People's Theatre until 30 September.