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CELEBRATING ICONIC CROSS-DRESSERS

Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
TROUSER-WEARING CHARACTERS
By Rose Collis
presented by Tomboi Productions

at Fringe Bar, Cnr Cuba & Vivian, Wellington
From 20 Feb 2013 to 23 Feb 2013

Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 21 Feb 2013


The Fringe Bar is appropriately set up in its usual cabaret style for Rose Collis's one-woman show, but this show, billed as “One woman, two banjoleles and four trouser-wearing characters...” is anything but ‘usual'.

A quirky opening number repeats the line, “Which is the rooster, which is the hen?” and concludes that it's often hard to tell, riffing on the theme that gender is performative. For this performance, Collis is wearing the trousers: a tuxedo, complete with white opera scarf, and is accompanied by two other unique ‘actors': her banjoleles (a cross between a banjo and a ukulele), introduced as Bud and Alvin.

Aptly titled Trouser-Wearing Characters, Collis conveys the stories of four real-life ‘trouser-wearing characters'; famous twentieth-century figures who have either literally or metaphorically ‘worn the pants': Nancy Spain, Valerie Arkell-Smith (aka Colonel Sir Victor Barker), Douglas Byng, and Coral Browne. 

For those unfamiliar, Spain was a prominent English broadcaster and journalist, who lived openly with Joan Laurie, editor of the women's magazine She. Valerie Arkell-Smith, not only cross-dressed, but lived as male and pretended to have served in the Royal Air Force. The sole male character in the show, Douglas Byng, was a famous West-End female impersonator. Finally, Coral Browne was a feisty stage and screen actress who was both an inspiration for, and a star of, Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad

The characters are chronicled primarily through Collis relating her extensive research into their private lives and careers, and personal, usually humorous, anecdotes. She is an astute historian, acclaimed British author, and has published biographies on each of the female characters (A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain, Colonel Barker's Monstrous Regiment, and Coral Browne: ‘This Effing-Lady').

Though Collis firmly remains herself throughout the show, she often briefly impersonates various characters – ranging from Noel Coward to Marlene Dietrich – to animate the stories. Supported by her banjoleles, Bud and Alvin, the narratives are interspersed with light songs.

The thread that ties all four characters and also connects Collis is her hometown of Brighton, England, nicknamed “the gay capital of England”.

The set is simple and serves the format. Collis remains centre-stage with her banjoleles and on either side of her is a banner. Each banner contains photographs of the trouser-wearing characters, allowing the audience to put a face to the person whose life is being retold.

Collis is in command of her material at large, which she delivers in an energetic and charismatic manner, often getting laughs on puns such as “himposter”.  

Overall, Trouser-Wearing Characters is an enjoyable hour, and I imagine will leave any audience member curious enough to go home and learn more about the four characters Collis shares.

Additionally, the show offers a piece in the Wellington Fringe Festival that specifically caters to the LGBT community and is a must-see for anyone interested in iconic cross-dressers.

On opening night the house is full, and the audience warm and supportive of Collis's work, even joining in to sing the final number.  
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 Charlotte Everett