JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHOIR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 29.9.14.
3 stars ***
THE IDEA of Judy Garland as a global icon for gay men is one of the most familiar landmarks in postwar popular culture. It’s unlikely, though, that the theme has ever been given such a strange and comprehensive workout as it receives in this poignant, eccentric and haunting solo touring show by Encounter Productions, created as part of a joint project to generate more new theatre from the north-east of England.
On a stage dominated by a large movie screen, and otherwise furnished only with a fridge and kitchen table, actor Donald McBride appears almost naked, a skinny elderly man dressed in nothing but tight white briefs, and – before long – the inevitable red shoes. In Lee Mattinson’s strange, hallucinatory, magic-realist one-hour text, he plays Francis, a gay bloke from a small town in the north who insists that he is the reincarnation of Judy, born with a perfect recall of her entire early life. Francis’s story is told through brief, episodic monologue scenes, punctuated by songs from the back catalogue of Judy Garland videos; there’s material from The Wizard Of Oz, but also film of an older Judy singing classic torch-songs like Smile, and I Who Have Nothing.
The story itself, though, often seems oddly out of tune with the show’s title, which gives the idea of choral singing a central role it never really achieves in the narrative. Francis’s life is blighted by a single sexual encounter, back in the 1990’s, with a man who infects him with the AIDS virus; after a vow to avoid the mistakes Judy made in her life, Francis refuses to take pills of any kind, and therefore will not swallow his AIDS medication.
After an early rejection by the conventional choir in his home town, Francis does find a kind of redemption – and some late-life love – in a loud-and-proud chorus made up of people variously rejected by society. There’s a sense, though, that the image of many voices raised in song finally matters less to Mattinson than the image of the solo diva, singing and dying alone; and despite the elegance and flair of Jen Malarkey’s production and Donald McBride’s performance, this intense poetic journey through the psyche of one gay man often seems slightly unfocussed, as though the story is striving to look in one direction, while secretly yearning to keep gazing in another, back towards the image of a star who has gone.