An Audience With Adrienne
4 stars ****
Traverse 5, Medical School, Teviot Place (Venue 295)
3 stars ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
BRITISH THEATRE HAS A LONG tradition of celebrating men in frocks, as comedians, figures of fun, or panto-season safety-valves for the pent-up tensions of a straight society. When Adrian Howells was a little boy – long before he emerged as the gorgeous Adrienne, to whose laid-back living-room party we’re invited each evening of this Festival – he even drew a picture of Danny La Rue at school, as an image of “what I want to be when I grow up”. The other boys were drawing train-drivers and spacemen, but little Adrian didn’t care.
Now, though – after more than a generation of vigorous campaigning for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual rights – the whole scene is shifting subtly. Audiences can still be induced to cheer or giggle like an end-of-the-pier crowd at the sight of a drag queen sashaying across the stage; but this year in Edinburgh, in shows from the NTS’s Bacchae to these two brave productions, we’re being asked tougher questions about how this emerging androgynous strand in our society can be truly integrated into social and civic life.
In An Audience With Adrienne, Howells pushes this process forward with a gentle, almost motherly insistence. Entertaining his guests in a cosy mock-up of a suburban living-room, in a couple of affectionately English drag outfits, he offers us a series of stories about his life – the precise agenda chosen by us, from a menu – and invites us to watch videos of him interacting affectionately with his very straight family.
Howells is a fine performer, who pulls off the rare trick of drawing deeply on his personal experience without seeming hopelessly self-absorbed. His interest in the other people’s stories – which the audience are invited to contribute, if they want to – is intense. And by the end of the show, when he strips off his drag, and vanishes to the pub as a quiet, embarrassed Adrian, there’s a powerful sense of having been put in a place where the image of the drag queen moves decisively beyond showbiz, into a series of real questions about how we live our everyday lives, and how far, even now, our society can easily accaommodate people who fit neither one gender stereotype, nor the other.
At the Pleasance, meanwhile, Team Angelica’s Stonewall – a bold staging of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s successful 1995 film script of the same name – asks these same questions in a much more upfront, politicised way. Set in New York in the late 1960’s, in the run-up to the Stonewall Riot which marked the beginning of a real rebellion against routine police bullying, Beadle-Blair’s script offers a fairly substantial history of the gay politics of the period. We see the tension between the suit-wearing gay rights campaigners and the live-fast-die-young drag queens, and how they eventually unite in the same struggle. We see the pain and complexity of their relationships, as they struggle not to use and abuse one another in uniquely stressful situations; and we see how the idea of freedom and equality, as enshrined in the American constitution, inspired yet another excluded group to start an organised campaign for freedom and respect.
In the end, the show betrays its own dramatic seriousness by relying too much on showbiz-and-sparkle camp to attract an audience, although the mimed pop-songs of the era are fun; and some of the acting is rocky. But for those prepared to listen to the dialogue, rather than just whoop at the drag numbers, this is a rewarding play about how gay and transexual people began their long march back into the heart of our civic life; and often a moving one.
Until 24, 27 August