A Life in Three Acts

Written and performed by Bette Bourne & Mark Ravenhill
London Artists Projects
Soho Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

After garnering awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, and packed-out runs at this venue and in The Hague last autumn, this 'conversation' between dramatist Ravenhill and drag queen and actor Bette Bourne is now back with its three parts played together.

Born Peter Bourne, just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Bette looks back to early memories of ducking beneath his parents' bed when there was a raid and takes us through each stage of his remarkable life from his first appearance as a four year old, dressed in a miniature RAF uniform for a show with Madame Behenna and her Dancing Children in Tottenham, through a career that encompasses training at the Central School, playing at the Old Vic and with Ian McKellen with Prospect, to the creation of his own Bloolips company and appearances in Neil Bartlett productions, at the Globe as Juliet's Nurse, as an award winning Lady Bracknell and as fellow stately homo Quentin Crisp.

Theatre buffs would probably like there to be more about his work as an actor but this is largely his private story, though one often lived out very publicly,. He tells us about a dad who could sometimes be brutal and who, when given a ticket to see his son at the Old Vic didn't even pick it up, of his involvement with gay liberation and membership of a gay commune. He talks about first getting into drag and the sense of confidence and liberation it gave him. He describes how he used to go to Gay Lib meetings 'thinking I was Che Guevara' - beard and all -- but one day a queen came along wearing a skirt who got riled when others made fun of him. The next week Bette (then I think still Peter) decided to put on a lovely dress he had for sale on the stall he ran then in Portobello market and in high heels tottered on the cobbles to attend the meeting. While everyone else was talking about American revolutionaries and theories he discovered what it actually felt like in a frock.

Remembering the friends and colleagues from those days and later the swathe of losses brought by AIDS, Bette is very moving but this is an evening that is also full of laughs. It all seems very real but actually it is skilfully scripted. Both Bourne and Ravenhill occasionally refer to copies of the text, based on a series of taped conversations that the dramatist has carefully edited. It is there perhaps as an aide memoire for, though sometimes Bette does appear to read a passage, he often doesn't follow the published version. Some passages have gone and there are plenty of additions. As well as giving the occasional lead into a new topic or being the other voice in a reported conversation, Ravenhill seems partly there to make sure that Bette doesn't add to much extra but both make this seem a natural and spontaneous conversation and as director he has created an entertaining and natural seeming construct.

Photographs from baby Peter in his romper suit to family, friends and roles illustrate the story and it is a sign of Bette's performance skills that he can react to many of them with a freshness that makes you feel he's seeing them for the first time. He also comes forward to become consciously a performer to give us a couple of numbers from his times with Hot Peaches and Bloolips and, with a change of lighting and the joy of his performance, his seventy-year old face seems to lose its years and become the handsome young man we have been looking at.

As Bourne says, he likes to be noticed - and you could hardly be more noticed than in a show about yourself. And make no mistake, this is a show. It may have the format of one of those National theatre Platforms but it has been very carefully crafted and it is winningly performed.

Until 27th February 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton