Kings Arms, Salford
The formula for autobiographical plays is well-established: well-meaning, soulful self-examinations leading to an uplifting ending. Joe Leather avoids the obvious with Wasteman, a show which is never less than hilarious, and, despite concerning a character who, it gradually dawns, is desperate to conceal certain facts, totally engaging and genuinely moving.
Drag is the gateway by which Joe Leather comes to appreciate his sexuality as he and his childhood friend discover the joy of trying on his sister's clothes. But Joe has become stuck. He is in a relationship with someone who despises drag and is creatively blocked, being no longer able to write songs. More significantly, he is working as a dustbin-man (sorry, dustbin-person) with colleagues who assume he is straight. The possibility of competing for the hotly-contested prize of Miss Stoke might help Joe move forward—but first he must confront his demons.
The character in Wasteman is hugely appealing. Leather opens the show in glamorous drag persona with a vampish high voice crooning a present-day version of "The Lady is a Tramp". By contrast, in his day job, Joe has a deep voice and a distinctly northern accent (Leather expertly assumes a variety of accents and personalities during the show) and isn’t as bright as he thinks—Machiavelli is not, as he assumes, a contestant from "Love Island".
Leather’s waspish, witty observations ensure Wasteman is relentlessly funny. He and his colleagues work as a trio—like Destiny’s Child only shite. Joe’s lover expresses his anger passive-aggressively by cooking elaborate meals which Joe reluctantly admits are delicious. The show opens with Leather addressing the audience as if in a dream, and the contrast between high hopes and mundane reality is a running theme. The prize for the best team on the refuse waggons is a £25 gift voucher from Greggs. Joe ruefully acknowledges the main benefit of being ’outed’ to his workmates is that he no longer has to pretend to like songs by the soft-rock group Journey.
Yet the atmosphere of the play is constantly positive, never downbeat. Joe’s efforts to raise the entry fee for the beauty pageant could be interpreted as squalid prostitution, but the play takes the view all involved are consenting adults and no harm is done. Besides, it is bloody funny.
Rather than make Wasteman a monologue, director Kat Bond builds a very active physical production with Leather in constant motion. Whilst building up the comedy, this also allows the secret which Joe is trying to ignore to emerge gradually. The darkening of mood is subtle—as Joe moves closer to the moment when he must commit to taking part in the beauty pageant, his behaviour shifts toward self-sabotaging. The revelation, when it comes, is entirely logical and explains Joe’s attitude without straining credibility.
Wasteman takes a deliciously refreshing approach to the theme of self-discovery and is not only entertaining but life-enhancing. After the GM Fringe, the show heads towards Edinburgh. They’re in for a treat.
Reviewer: David Cunningham