At one point in Dame Nature: The Magnificent Bearded Lady, its hirsute star recounts an anecdote where, prohibited from using the facilities by her controlling and manipulative husband, she lays a turd in a corporate-sponsored wildflower meadow adjacent to Gordano motorway services. Unfortunately the choppy blocks of tragicomic material that make up the entirety of this hour-long show lie together as comfortably as a smear of excrement on a daisy.
Abortion and puns; domestic abuse and Phil Collins.
It’s ill conceived and delivers its various messages with all the precision of landmines from a long forgotten war.
We’re introduced to Cheryl (Tim Bell), the star of a show, orchestrated by her husband and partner in freakshowbusiness, that tours up and down the country exhibiting her luxuriant growth for cash.
He’s absent due to a foot injury so, for the first time ever, she has to perform alone. This doesn’t go to plan.
She normally does nothing but stand there while he spouts rubbish and grooms her for the pleasure of the audience.
Free of his influence, it isn’t long before she’s trying out her own material and then, predictably, letting the mask slip to the darker truths of her life and relationship.
Not before some Fringe-friendly audience participation, naturally.
She goes on to compare her lot with her hairy heroines – the bearded ladies of the past who were ill-treated in the course of profit.
It’s a matter of no astonishment whatsoever when she reveals that she’s the subject of similar abuse, her absent spouse responsible for monstering her in every possible sense of the word.
But nothing really hangs together. The notion Greene King pubs might, in 2017, be programming a bearded lady act in the function rooms of its pubs is risible.
That she’d be an object of fascination at all is rather taken for granted.
She’s poorly drawn too. Her obsession with Bella magazine and Phil Collins are too facile as facets of anything more than a cartoon.
Worse still, the sophisticated wordplay she uses to explore them goes far beyond an individual only supposedly allowed one trashy magazine a month
She’s an impossible collection of characteristics so, when the forced abortion, lack of human contact and slavery come out, I can’t relate.
I care even less as the two-dimensional, evil husband is only an unreal voice on a recording.
And then there’s the decision to cast a man as Cheryl. The one thing that grants this production stars is Bell’s performance. He plays her with sharp comic timing, passion and considerable physical skill, making her awkward, shy, pathetic, frustrated and lumpen.
But with the weak material he’s regurgitating it’s tough to get past the fact he’s a burly bloke in a dress.
His wide, tearful eyes, while conveying an ocean of emotion, never make it to feminine.
And that’s a huge problem as the quick fire comic passages simply suggest what we’re witnessing is a drag act in the mould of Mrs Brown’s Boys or Les Dawson rather than a delicate deconstruction of a real, complex character.
Enter the sledgehammer revelation of the abortion and the wires suspending my disbelief snap.
I become aware of myself and, irritatingly for a show that’s only 60 minutes, the laboured repetitions of Cheryl’s various trials.
The result is a lingering sense of confusion, like trying to make a single picture from several different jigsaws.
Dame Nature: The Magnificent Bearded Lady runs at Wilton’s Music Hall until January 14, Tickets start at £10.
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