Edinburgh review: You've Changed (Summerhall)

Kate O’Donnell’s piece looks at what happened when she came to terms with being transgender at the age of 38

Sean Murray and Kate O'Connell
Sean Murray and Kate O'Donnell
© Lee Baxter

Kate O’Donnell transitioned on an inflatable mattress in someone else’s sitting room in 2003. That was when she came to terms with being transgender at 38. From the next morning on, she committed to living as a woman. It took the world a little while to catch up.

You’ve Changed, a TED-style performance lecture, charts both O’Donnell’s transition and shifting social attitudes to transgender issues. It’s quite remarkable, actually, how much has changed in 14 years, and You’ve Changed takes stock. It celebrates progress without losing sight of past struggles.

A likeable presence with a mischievous glint, O’Donnell talks us through her transition with admirable frankness and charm – from the indignity of psychological tests to confirm her gender dysmorphia to the physical exertion of gender reassignment surgery itself.

Fittingly, the show’s its own slow change routine. O’Donnell starts in the top and tails of Fred Astaire, a vision of classically suave masculinity, and ends in a ballgown and a sequinned bob wig, a queer Ginger Rogers. Her famous bon mot – "I did everything Fred did but backwards and in heels" – takes on a new meaning.

Because the sense you get is of a pioneer: a woman who found her way without a road map. Back in 1980, O’Donnell was living as a gay man called Andrew at a time when "nobody was out". Section 28 was still to come. She endured a culture of ignorance that lacked the terminology – transsexual, we said, or worse, 'chick with a dick' – and the technology we have to today. O’Donnell shows us that struggle without ever showing it off.

Transgender women like her have left a legacy behind, and You’ve Changed is part of that. It is, in part, an explainer and there’s huge generosity in O’Donnell’s baring all for our benefit, and one witty routine gives her vagina its own wee stage, velvet curtains and all. But it’s also a 'How To' Guide to transitioning; O’Donnell passing on information she had to learn on her own.

It might be theatrically naïve, a bit clumsy, and occasionally you wish the writing was as honest as the whole was heartfelt. O’Donnell tends to hide behind scripted witticisms and stock phrases rather than meet us in the moment and talk to us truthfully, and I’d have liked a wider sense of social shifts: how the net has changed attitudes in a short space of time.

But it’s best on personal change – a whole life’s worth. At one point, O’Donnell plays a slideshow of selfies; each portrait blurring into the next. What you see is a woman truly growing into herself – physically, yes, but emotionally too. It’s not just that her face starts to soften and her hair to sit right. It’s that her whole attitude shifts. She starts smiling; not trying to fit in, but to stick out and show off. Blue hair. Outré sunglasses. An air of confidence. A changed woman.

You’ve Changed runs as part of Northern Stage @ Summerhall until 26 August, 20.30.

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