JOYCE MCMILLAN on CRAZY JANE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.6.15.
4 stars ****
SHE’S THE WOMAN in all Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous paintings of Paris in the 1890’s; thin, fragile, red hair piled high, often dancing, with strange, stylised movements. She is Jane Avril, one of the most famous and fascinating dancers of the age, and the woman Lautrec adored, although she never became his wife or lover; and now the Birds Of Paradise Theatre Company has created a two-hour drama-cum-cabaret about her life that adds another beautiful and haunting strand to the current generation of great work by Scottish-based companies involving artists with disabilities.
For if Avril was one of the iconic stars of Paris in the Belle Époque, she was also a survivor of a deeply traumatic childhood, marked by fierce maternal cruelty – her mother was a ruthless high-earning prostitute – and strikingly enlightened institutional care; her dancing emerged as a response to a severe spasmodic twitching disorder she suffered in her early teens, which was gradually held at bay by the strength and focus of ballet training.
Backed by a tremendous suite of music and poetry by the Glasgow-based band Hector Bizerk, and by superb visual images by lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky with artist Pearl Kinnear, Nicola McCartney’s play adopts a swooping, non-chronological structure that weaves the story of Jane’s childhood into the texture of her later life as a true movement artist, uncompromising in her determination to own her own body, and to do with it what she chose. George Drennan, as the ringmaster figure who links all these sequences, sometimes struggles with the slightly plodding business of explaining where we are, and when; and some of the dialogue scenes, with both projected text and sign-language, seem a shade long and repetitive.
The show is sustained, though, by two wonderful performances from Rachel Drazek and Pauline Knowles as the younger and older Jane, both acting and dancing with a rare, haunting power and sadness. Caroline Parker, actor and BSL signer, gives fine support as Jane’s evil old mother. And at the heart of the story is Jane’s deep connection with Buchan Lennon’s baffled and poignant Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his deformed legs and tiny stature; as two people who carry the visible wounds of a world that finally damages us all find one another, in fin-de-siècle Paris, and succeed – however briefly – in turning the pain of imperfect lives into truly great art.
Crazy Jane in Aberdeen, Inverness and Dornie this week, at Summerhall, Edinburgh 9-10 June, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy 11 June, and Dundee Rep, 13 June.