Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 8 February, 1996

Ivan Cartwright is a rum cove and no mistake. A transvestite since childhood (no mean declaration for the son of a Huddersfield miner), he started female hormone treatment and electrolysis at the age of 18 and began living as a woman prior to sex-change surgery. However, he declined the final cut and gradually found a new public identity as a drag queen.

For an hour and a half he tells his story, alternately reclining on a black vinyl sofa, changing frocks for a clutch of character routines and inserting himself into taped dialogue segments from movies as diverse as Some Like It Hot (inevitably, I suppose) and Spartacus. Inevitably with such a mixture, some bits work better than others.

Cartwright's autobiography is a remarkable one, and he tells it with an engaging edge of acidulous camp, but he is conscious that this is not in itself dramatic in the way that, for example, Ken Campbell's creatively rewritten slices of his life are. He offers magnificently wry insights into such things as the combined role-model advice and pornographic potential of Woman's Own, and Jean Plaidy novels as a source of historical information on queer monarchs, but by and large these segments are recitations rather than re-enactments.

The character pieces are more straightforward in their entertainment: a New Age healer, a Northern housewife bitching across the washing line (implausible shades of Les Dawson) and a terrifically bizarre sequence in which Danny La Rue gives an art history lecture, complete with slides and occasional interjections from Brian Sewell. However, these episodes seldom bear more than a tenuous relation to the autobiographical meat of the evening; they succeed in upping the quota of spectacle, but are patchily integrated into the show as a whole. The two strands converge most closely with the final costume change when Cartwright, un-made-up and dressed in leather chaps and buckles, looking with his shaven head not unlike a queeny version of Steven Berkoff, re-enacts a spot of al fresco cottaging, informing us that Quentin Crisp was wrong: "The Great Dark Man does exist. I know, I've had him four times on Streatham Common."

Cartwright, lacking the consummate magnetism of his mentor Bette Bourne, has tailored a show which is interesting, entertaining and stimulating, but cannot quite get all these garments to work in the same ensemble.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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