Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Boy In A Dress

La JohnJoseph
Ovalhouse, London
to

Even before writer and performer La JohnJoseph uncrosses his legs and gives himself to the audience, much has been promised from Boy In A Dress. That it will explore “the intersection of class, gender, religion and identity from a somewhat unique cultural perspective” seems to be a given, that it is “raucously political and accidentally profound” is up for debate.

The programme notes introduce JohnJoseph as a “perverted polymath of the highest order”, while director Sarah Crew is a “circus mongrel trapped in the body of a feminist intercultural facilitator”. Witty and subversive or wordy and self-indulgent? Either way, these initial flourishes are implicit of what’s to come…

From the council estates of Liverpool to the strip clubs of New York—via a wink to Catholicism and a flirtatious lean in to the local Social Services—JohnJoseph’s is a colourful life well worth sharing. It is an epic tale, out of which saunters a savvy, elegant third gender performer who has already been referred to as an “icon in the making”.

It’s a shame the production itself totters unsteadily between mixed media theatre and cabaret. While sprinkled with laughter, drama and song, Boy In A Dress is surprisingly cluttered with stereotypes. Glitzy heels, feather boas, sequinned dresses and cocktails abound, as do affected gestures and expressions.

There’s also an awful lot going on, with JohnJoseph skipping uneasily between soliloquy and song, occasionally relinquishing the spotlight to video projections, body painting or manic scribbling sessions that do little to ease the disjointed outpour. The merger between three of the practitioner’s previous solo memoirs—"I Happen To Like New York", "Underclass Hero" and "Notorious Beauty"—may have proved a less natural fit than expected here.

That said, when the actor is in storytelling mode there’s no doubting he’s compelling to watch. He also displays a charismatic singing voice, sweeping his own interpretation over songs by everyone from Cole Porter to Leonard Cohen and Justin Vivian Bond, all the while accompanied on piano onstage by musical director Jordan Hunt.

That Hunt is so easily incorporated into the staging is testament to Cleo Pettitt’s impressive set design. Minimalist considering the nature of the production elsewhere, Pettitt’s set works hard, incorporating symbolic images such as a giant closet and miniature New York skyline, while elsewhere multipurpose objects act as boxes, seats and tables. Even the walls and floor are used creatively for chalk drawings or projections.

The outstanding aspect of the stage design, however, is the lighting, which Charlie Morgan Jones uses sparingly but to great effect. From dressing room mirror-style lighting from within the closet, to cabaret-inspired spotlight and the ingenious blue UV-style lighting of the public toilets—which transforms the space into an eerie, sordid den—Morgan evokes great atmosphere throughout.

Adding to the overall effect is actress Anna Lewenhaupt who, while given little to work with in terms of character, exudes a captivating stage presence as she flops, teeters and stumbles about the stage to take on various supporting roles, utilising her artistic background to add a mixture of performance art and illustration to what are unfortunately already cluttered proceedings.

Lewenhaupt wears a dress, JohnJoseph wears a dress, even Bond slips on a pair of high heels, yet even with the requisite nude scenes, the knowing but not-quite-controversial-enough humour, the entertaining musical numbers and the potentially insightful subject matter, Boy In A Dress never seems to fully achieve the sparkle that hangs in wait behind those closet doors.

Kat Halstead