Brighton Festival 2010
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Jessica Walker & Neil Bartlett
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
The audience are taken on a journey of story and song, from the cross-dressers of the Victorian Music hall to the bright lights of New York city in the 1800’s.
Jessica Walker is certainly a captivating performer – she is cooly confident as she takes to the stage, dressed in tails and dicky-bow. There is no denying that she is a woman – her high cheekbones and red lips are undoubtedly feminine. However, when she dons one of the many hats positioned onstage to inhabit her male persona her stature changes and becomes decidedly masculine – a well-gauged homage to the women whose stories are being told.
The Girl I Left Behind Me is an examination of the long-lived and fascinating era in which female drag acts (that is, women pretending to be men) graced the stages of theatres and music halls across the land, singing lewd and bawdy songs to great acclaim. Presented almost as a performance-lecture Jessica tells the stories of some of this genre’s most famous heroines, interspersing them with expert renditions of the songs they sang. We hear about the heartbreak of Johnny who lost the lady, Johnny who loved the ladies – in fact there is a whole section dedicated to the infamous Johnny, who features in so many of these ballads.
The production does a very fine job of presenting the contradictions within the buttoned up Victorian society, which on the one hand fiercely disapproved of and criminalised male homosexuality and no doubt had little conception or understanding of female homosexuality, and on the other completely accepted, nay, embraced the risque fiction of a woman parading around onstage dressed as man – singing of her love for women.
In the show, Jessica doesn’t imply that all these male impersonators were lesbians, and that is not really what the show is about at all. The true sexuality of the women is in some ways irrelevant, it is the way they were perceived by the public which is what this piece examines.
We do hear some interesting stories involving sexuality however, especially the tale of Annie Hindle, who married her dresser – as a man. We don’t know how the relationship turned out, but we do know that it killed her career – as the finely balanced line between fiction and reality was shattered for the audience, who stopped trusting that she was a woman at all and therefore lost interest and belief in her gimmick.
The staging of this show was simple – one woman, accompanied by a very fine pianist on a grand piano. Strangely she seemed to decide whether to speak into the microphone at random, and this felt a little odd. I can understand that it was there to save her voice during the talking sections (as she very impressively sang unamplified) however I found the lack of consistency a little distracting.
Overall this was a very nicely presented exploration of the role male impersonators have played in the cultural past of the UK and USA, delivered by a talented singer who displayed a wry sense of humour and enquiring mind. It is a great collaboration between Neil Bartlett (a well respected writer, performer and director ) and Jessica Walker who has a wealth of talent and a magnetising stage presence.