Blanche & Butch is a new co-production by Birds of Paradise and Tron Theatre, written by Robert Softley Gale. It follows the story of three disabled drag queens. Joe Turnbull caught a performance at the Tron Theatre, before it goes on a Scotland-wide tour.
Blanche (Robert Softley Gale) enters stage left, practically naked, save for some tights, gold underpants and nipple tassels. BSL Interpreter (Amy Cheskin) dressed in a lurid red wig adorns Blanche with a glitzy carnivalesque headpiece. He proceeds to lip-synch provocatively, the words interpreted via BSL by the red-haired assistant. A semi-transparent curtain behind Blanche reveals a backstage scene, with other performers getting ready.
The staging is well considered, with the screen providing the captions clearly visible through the downed curtain. The scene is set. It’s going to be an ostentatious orgy of superficiality; lewd, crude, with lots of laughs. And perhaps a little poignancy.
The entire show takes place backstage, focussing on three drag queens, Blanche, Butch (Garry Robson) and Bette (Kinny Gardner) in between scenes of their performance of the cult classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Their tour manager, Wendy (Cara Ballingal) is chivvying them along. She doubles as the audio-describer (she quietly takes herself off to a corner at various moments to speak into a microphone, which is not heard by the sighted audience).
The opening exchanges are borderline cliché camp comedy, as the three divas exchange witticisms and insults, whilst Blanche recounts some of his sexual exploits.
It makes for an entertaining romp of an opening, but the real flavour of the piece is unveiled as the simmering tensions of the trio boil over. Blanche and Butch are old stage mates, who used to make edgy, political drag as ‘Heels n Wheels’. They’ve had to water down their act, and whilst it’s bringing in the punters (in arsehole-of-nowhere venues in towns like Wigan), no one seems artistically fulfilled. Blanche is still full of dreams and aspirations of bigger and better things.
Butch is a vituperative veteran of the Disability Rights movement, which proves a useful foil for Birds of Paradise to explain some of the disability politics to the uninitiated in the audience. Bette is the new addition, an experienced (also bitter) queen from the drag circuit, whose intentions are unclear. The troupe have got wind of a producer from London in the audience, which adds fuel to the flames as they jostle and jockey for position.
In between the exchanges, there are occasional original musical numbers and lip-synching scenes. A particular highlight is ‘Intersectional Intercourse,’ a catchy little number, which does exactly what it says on the tin. The music is given live accompaniment by Keys (Amelia Cavallo), a visually impaired female pianist – “of course, all blind people can play the piano,” remarks Blanche.
Butch’s right-on politics don’t extend to his personal relationships and he is forever patronising or playing down Blanche’s talents – constantly reminding the latter that his cerebral palsy is a barrier to stardom, as he isn’t easy to understand for audiences. This alludes to the hierarchies between impairments, and in-fighting within the disability community. The humour throughout is peppered with this self-aware insight, no doubt gleaned from personal experience of both sides.
Softley Gale clearly intended to write a piece which was entertaining but made some serious points about intersectionality and the multiple identities of being both disabled and gay. For the most part, he does this with a light touch, through little flourishes and barely perceptible off-hand remarks. But the most powerful moment of the show comes with an in-your-face monologue delivered by Blanche which ruminates on disabled experience. Considering his communication skills are mocked early on, his message is loud and clear.
Blanche is so desperate not to be pitied or belittled that he only outwardly shows his witty, effervescent side, the side that will defy people’s expectations. But that means hiding deeper thoughts and darker experiences. This monologue is an apt metaphor for the production itself, and perhaps even drag culture more broadly. It could perhaps have been braver in embracing that dark side.
For a show that self-consciously tackles intersectionality, there are some voices notable by their absence. In the final scene, Keys refers to this, observing that the three female characters are mere adornments for the male protagonists. It’s also a very white-looking production, though this isn’t picked up. That’s not to say all ‘intersectional’ shows should tokenistically box-tick (in fact, the show’s composer Tayo Akinbode is of Nigerian descent), but it was perhaps at least deserving of a jokey, self-aware comment.
As a slice of drag culture from a disability perspective Blanche & Butch delivers glitz and laughs, as you’d expect, and a sprinkling of insight, which you might not.