‘Piss on Pity’ exclaims the t-shirt of Butch as he pretties his face. Three disabled drag queens are putting on a theatrical production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. The classic thriller horror film about a faded film star keeping her paraplegic sister trapped in a castle. We are invited backstage as they get ready for their performance, now in front of a London producer reviving hopes of a big break. As well as familiar rumination of fading glory in advancing age the threat of cruelty in the film hovers constantly above this play providing a tension about saying things in an environment where seemingly nothing is off limits. ‘Crip’ is liberally used, characters referred to as ‘the big homo from Soho’ and you can also learn the British Sign Language action for ‘up the arse’. You’ll know it when you see it.
Some ten years ago Heelz on Wheels was presented by some of the same cast in real life. It is also part of the backstory to Blanche and Butch who in returning will absolutely not have your studied and uncomfortable sympathies at how terrible it must be. Nor will they be inspiration porn for overcoming the ‘difficulties’. There is no hesitation in destroying the myth of disability as inherent as opposed to constructed and so the attitude persists at all levels. A glorious song on intersectionality is one of a few musical pieces that heighten the camp factor whilst displaying the musical (and of course lip sync) skills of the cast, all the while keeping pace moving and minds whirring.
The excellent performance interpreter, Amy Cheskin, is kitted out in a red wig and high heels, just as Cara Ballingall playing the audio transcriber is. They are stage dressing in the form of human women and the all-male cast will have this drawn to their notice. The greenish tinge of the lighting glances off the whitened faces and glittered bodies of our queens. Even as the grease paint is wiped off they remain almost otherworldly in appearance thanks to the colours around them. I am informed that once the tour is completed the actors will not be going near glitter again due to its pervasive qualities.
The politicisation of bodies is also a subject at the fore and notably the sexuality of its creators. The exquisite ‘I didn’t need to come out as heterosexual or homosexual, I just came out as sexual’ is delivered with the absolute surety of the experience of someone who is assumed to not have what is almost universal to all animals, the desire to have sex. To see queer or disabled bodies on stage is an all too rare thing. To see and hear a performance focused around the perception of those bodies and corresponding assumed ability (or lack thereof) in very graphic sexual detail is rarer still. For this, and much more, Blanche & Butch is a filthy and brilliantly executed treat.
Speaking with its creator Robert Softley Gale and performer Garry Robson after opening night it is clear that this is a show that came together in a comparatively short time but the brainchild of Softly Gale has been a the subject of love and ambition for a decade. A monologue on how stepping back from the protest and instead giving the people what they want from both drag and disabled performers, camp and pity, is precise and brutal. Now in its 25th year Birds of Paradise theatre and the writers and performers of Butch & Blanche present a play of excellence and enormous humour.