Brighton Fringe 2021
Alexander Joseph and Ro Robertson write the music (Joseph) and lyrics. Tech support from ‘Tony’ and Rialto. Ends June 19th
What if you’re born black and white especially just made for the movies and they go al technicolour? Literally, I mean there’s Ro Robertson’s white Rita Herringbone and Alexander Joseph’s black Glenda Swing born in New York somewhere in the 1910s and – well at last they never age. But they do go out of date.
Even with light rose lighting on Rita and a faintest blush of turquoise blue on Glenda, they’re essentially monochrome people with technicolour hearts. And they tug, and beat all colours of the rainbow out of Hollywood. But don’t tell them that.
Cinebra Productions returns after their triumphal show here – A History of Horror in 2019. Joseph’s the composer and – it seems – writer of the book and lyrics. It’s a close collaboration though and there’s joint authorship in creating Glenda and Rita.
Conceived as a vivid monochrome conceit on the way some actors didn’t make it to technicolour the way an earlier generation didn’t make the transition to sound, the show’s about far more than just Hollywood. Even if it’s all about it. Watch out for clapperboards.
Glenda’s bitter and the white twists in her facials go to an edge of sheer charcoal because that’s her mode and her drinking problem. Rita’s peacemaker to Glenda’s full Merman bawl, though their signing prowess manages to fine down to elegy as well as rip to can belto. So you begin to wonder if Rita has something over Glenda. I fact (sopiler1) there’s no big reveal over manipulation , no factitious plot-point. What we get is in its way perfectly straight. Stars of films with goof-spoof titles, they’re in a string of these from 1933 to 1943, with a few appearances thereafter. It’s not that they age exactly, but come from another age.
The age when Glenda’s asked to put that gag over the naughty an in the boot of the car at the behest of her gangster father (the only man who loves her). But he takes her to see Clara Bow and Mary Pickford, or rather she sees them up in lights.
So does, growing streets away in New York, the (whisper it so Glenda doesn’t hear) softer feminine Rita, the one who gets all the men, all called Billy, and all the gigs later – she lasts a bit longer going solo, but she can’t be without Glenda. It’s touching. We get a zig-zag chronology, a bit like an Art Deco black and white zig-zag, liberally soused with colourful spirits.
The songs are terrifically punchy, sometimes memorable pastiche and explosive vocal lines and the ever-deferred ‘Big Number’ which when it does arrive… You’ll see. It’s in that little flask. Someone’s slurring. Too late the strumpets? That’s deeply unfair. I’ll hear from their agents then the police. Robertson’s delivery here is in fact a tour-de-farce of riveting meltdown brilliance. All I’m saying. See it.
Joseph has an even more memorable number ‘Billy’. I wish there was a song-list, it’s exquisite and there should be a CD. Thus Rita’s at the keyboard (well Tony on sound, always sacked by Glenda and reinstated seconds later); she rhapsodises intimately on the man in 1933, and the one from 1936-43 and the one last year. Now bearing in mind they’re referring to cellphones and much else, you get the idea these two could outlast celluloid, let alone cellulite (of which not a sign, even if it exists as Jeanette Winterson denies it), and in any case, like celluloid, haven’t they been curatively digitised? That’d explain a lot.
There’s much smuggled here that’s not at all nice, or even ladylike. The red envelope with her landlord’s quittance notice for Glenda in 1955, the details, the final eviction from the working side of town, brings stark reminders of how such faded stars end.
The final duet ‘Know Your Onions’ from I Guess That’s The Last Of Me is up-beat for a down-beat, even a dead-beat end to our revels. Finally, as they’ve been saying all along – rather Rita has, Glenda denies it – they used to work in the movies. Revenant black-and-white ghosts, eternally retelling, they’ll rise up, as Thomas Lovell Beddoes puts it: ‘out of hoary centuries, where none can speak [their} language.’
Delivery and lighting sparkle as much as the dresses, tailored to catch a monochrome though inflected with those rose and turquoise notes, as well as grey armings – if there’s a name like that – to grey out Rita’s skin. Joseph’s Glenda with a sequinned charcoal-effect dress has the denser make-up, a cross between Cruella de Ville and Mortitia Adams. Don’t tell her! Robertson’s far more the Harlow/Colbert/Monroe white-out blonde effect, and carries it to sibilant perfection.
Music cues are crisp, ensemble perfect even when it’s in a puddle on the floor, and the concept both highly original and subversive. Choreography has to be tight, and the wardrobe changes and the occasional vanishings of Glenda allow a few subtle shifts. The raised Rialto platform helps though one imagines the pair would enjoy more elbow room. It’s the kind of show pulsing with it. And there’s those movie clapperboards, finally used in a paean to the industry. There is more than a hint of nostalgia, a bit of love for what destroys you.
The artistic merit of Glenda and Rita Live is a superb niche expressiveness, a colourful heart and a distant black-and-white retelling of the phase of an industry whose clichés long turned up at the edges. Winning huge praise on their first Rialto show, the Alexander Joseph and Ro Robertson team return in triumph.
And – like other performers tonight – there’s a personal paean to theatres and audience at the end.