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"West End Theatre Has a Sex Change"
The Sunday Times, September 17, 2000
By Steve Grant
An East German transsexual glamrocker is surgically mutilated for the love of a GI and spills all to the audience. Two personable and well-built Australians make Blue Peter origami shapes from their penises. A 15-year-old boy played by a former Hollywood child star is seduced by a much older French lady. London's West End theatre is hotting up again.
Nice to see antipodean willies at the Whitehall, still best known as the home of sexually feeble Brian Rix farces. Puppetry of the Penis, featuring Simon Morley and David Friend, was a big hit in Edinburgh and now has the chance to wow London sophisticates with its brand of genital bend-me-shake-me.
Morley and Friend got together in Melbourne three years ago. The shapes they construct range from a hungry bird to fried chicken that you'll never feel like eating again and an emerging molusc, which calls on one of them to make his member disappear into his body. The pièce de résistance tomorrow will be the Olympic torch, for which they'll be using a rare prop, a disposable lighter. Don't worry about getting a view, there's a large screen at the back. Friend reckons they've got two more years.
But innocently charming as it is, its cult appeal is likely to be dwarfed by that of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at the Playhouse. Hedwig, by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, comes from New York where its admirers included Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Madonna, Tim Burton, and David Bowie, who financed its Los Angeles transfer. These are the kind of endorsements that commercial producers dream about, the conference of coolship that creates an audience ambience, as Penis Puppetry producer David Johnson puts it, "like a nightclub's".
Hedwig Schmidt, screwed up and dragged up, is played by Michael Cerveris, who was Tommy on Broadway and performs mean rock guitar. The Angry Inch is both his four-piece band and the red ugly scar left after a botched sex change.
Hedwig's torch-song style confessional is interspersed with a score of blistering rock numbers. The show is more blitzkrieg cabaret than musical, recalling Eddie Izzard, and Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy.
Cerveris notes how much interest there is now in gender and cross-dressing issues, even in Hollywood movies from Mrs Doubtfire to Boys Don't Cry. Hedwig isn't for tinnitus sufferers but it has a philosophical edge to it that raises it above the crowd.
On a less heady plane is Richard Nelson's Madame Melville at the Vaudeville, the work of an American writer long associated with the RSC. But Nelson is the latest theatrical bigwig to become part of the current cult of celebrity. Step up Macaulay Culkin, star of Home Alone.
Culkin's star has nose-dived lately. He is the only man in history to have divorced his wife and his parents before hitting 21 but hasn't made a film for four years. Hence his West End debut, as a 15-year-old bonking a nice French lady played by Irene Jacob, might have a certain desperation about it, similar to Lord Archer's eagerly awaited acting debut in The Accused. Despite reports in the press, Culkin won't be taking his clothes off like Jerry Hall.
David Johnson produced the West End runs of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and F****** and thinks the commercial theatre now "holds the moral high ground, especially when you think that the National is putting on My Fair Lady starring a former EastEnder [Martine McCutcheon]. That's pathetic". Johnson had problems with both - Trainspotting had 137 c-words and Shopping provoked walkouts.
Johnson recalls being with director Max Stafford-Clark in the Gielgud circle bar looking down at the audience coming into Ravenhill's play and thinking "how young, hip, handsome and intelligent they were. It's not a new audience, it's just one that's not always catered for".
Certainly it's true that the West End has housed some of the most exciting and challenging theatre in the past decade: Patrick Marber's Closer, Tracy Letts's Killer Joe, Jim Cartwright's Little Voice, Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg, Catherine Johnson's Mamma Mia!, to name a few.
It's intriguing that Shaftesbury Avenue and the Strand have handled their image problems so well. In the politicised 1970s the young and the right-on avoided the West End because they didn't like the buildings, which reeked of the established order and the past. They went to see big public plays at the National and RSC or haunted the fringe.
Intriguingly, this battle of ideology and architecture seems to have been won, maybe because the plays have changed. One thing that unites Trainspotting and Shopping and F****** is that none of the characters has ever been on a march or argued with a shop steward. They are plays which tell you who you are, rather than what you should do.
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