By Sian Davies
With contributions from Cassandra Cassidy
‘Blanche and Butch’ opens with Blanche, played by Robert Softley Gale, making his way across the front of the stage on all fours. The sound of his limbs hitting the stage breaks the auditorium’s silence. The audience is tense, and even as Blanche is christened with an extravagant feather headpiece laughs are withheld. The uncommon sight of a visibly disabled actor commanding the stage leads to clenched jaws and held breath, and proves exactly why this play has been created and should be seen.
Set in the dressing room of a disabled, drag production of ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, the play’s narrative develops through squabbles, proclamations about identity and shared moments of glory – including an Abba number. Though the premise – breaking the fourth wall to reveal backstage antics – is nothing new, the show’s breaking down of social taboos should be commended.
The tension backstage builds to a breaking point when Bette forces Blanche to prove she cannot walk. This is depicted on stage, and perhaps unnecessarily. Drawn out, and with a foregone conclusion, instead of being gripped by the drama it left me waiting for it to reach the conclusion.
The laughter is hesitant to begin with. However, as the show progresses, the audience begins to relax, and to realise that yes, the show is funny; and yes, these ‘actually disabled’ actors are indeed capable of delivering unflinching jokes about ‘spaz-fucks’ and facials. The atmosphere in the auditorium swells towards a triumphant and hearty applause at the plays conclusion.
When the play isn’t telling our prejudiced concept of disability to ‘F*** Off’ (the concluding statement from Robert’s searing monologue), it encourages the audience to engage in reflection – sometimes quite literally. At one point, whilst the characters inspect their appearance in on stage mirrors, glints of the audience are mixed with their reflections. Garry Robson’s Butch delivers touching thoughts on his role as a father, and Kinny Gardner’s Bette laments the passage of time. The audience, meanwhile, are faced with their own voyeuristic gaze reflected back at them, a powerful reminder of our own capacity to ‘Other’ someone with just a look. It is a thought that stays with you long after the play’s curtain.
It is also worth noting that with both a sign interpreter and a teleprompter for the hearing impaired, this story of intersectionality is accessible to all.
For more information about Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, head to their website: http://www.boptheatre.co.uk/