Paper Dolls

Philip Himberg

Tricycle Theatre, London

From 28 February 2013 to 13 April 2013

Review by Gerald Berkowitz

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In Israel today a shortage of male nurses to care for elderly Jewish men has led to the importation of carers from the Philippines, many of them gay, producing the fascinating cultural juxtaposition of orthodox Jews and cross-dressing gay Catholic Filipinos.

But that's not what Philip Himberg's play (inspired by a documentary film by Tomer Heymann) is about.

Himberg does show the bond that has developed—the finished product after years together, not the potentially more interesting meeting or period of adjustment—between one elderly Israeli and his carer, and there is some warm humour in seeing the Filipinos preparing Jewish dishes, helping in Hebrew prayers or singing Tzena Tzena.

But Himberg's real attention is on the far, far less interesting story of some of the nurses forming a drag act and trying to make it on the lowest rungs of Israeli show business.

That story is one we have seen too many times before—the not-very-good amateurs finding comfort in the fantasy that they're potential stars, the exploitation by promoters, the bonding together in a surrogate family that is threatened when a booker wants only some of them—and making it about a Filipino drag act in Israel doesn't add as much freshness or novelty as you might think.

So the potentially most dramatically interesting part of the story is given short shrift, while the potentially most theatrically entertaining part is crippled by the plot fact that the drag act isn't a good one.

Credit must go to director Indhu Rubasingham, choreographer Alistair David and the actors for hitting the totally believable note of more-earnest-than-talented in the musical numbers, but that anchors all the razzle-dazzle in inescapable pathos.

(At its lowest moments the effect is a bit like the cringeworthy closing credits sequence in the film of Mamma Mia, when the actors whose strained singing worked in the fiction of the film put on spandex costumes and tried to do a glam rock concert.)

Only one fantasy sequence (not in the printed text), in which a quartet of Hasidic men sing "Take A Walk On The Wild Side", has the delightfully surreal quality the other musical numbers reach for.

When the serious scenes allow them, Harry Dickman and Francis Jue create some warmth as patient and carer, but the other Paper Dolls and the Israeli characters around them are too constricted by predictable typing (the practical one, the motherly one, the rebellious one, etc.) to give the actors much scope.