Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Liberace: Live From Heaven
Assembly, George Square
Camp icon meets camp icon as Liberace faces the judgement of God and the audience. A musical biography with a surprisingly serious edge, and some famous vocal contributions, points to a possible alternative future for the Fringe in the face of ever-more homogenised festival fodder.
To start at the finish, as this show does, I passed a couple leaving another venue while on my way back to FringeReview Towers (where all us critics live together like a modern-day Monkees) and overheard a woman declare to her partner: “I honestly don’t think people are interested in thought-provoking theatre.” Let me tell you, friends, at that moment I wanted to take her by the hand and lead her to The Assembly, George Square. For here is a show that by most definitions of the fringe, should not exist. Yet here it is in all its bouffant glory, and I mean that most sincerely folks.
Bobby Crush, Opportunity Knocks winner from the early 70s and composer of “Orville’s Song ( I Wish I Could Fly)” has himself long been associated with camp. Even in his youth, his nods and smiles to camera while bejewelled fingers flew across the keyboard meant his status as housewives’ favourite owed as much to the erstwhile Wladziu Valentino Liberace as it did to Hughie Green and his clapometer. Here, Crush pours himself into both the music and costume of the American icon, replete with ill-fitting black wig on his head and sequins everywhere else, looking like nothing so much as a gay Elvis (in itself fitting, as Elvis’ own sense of showmanship was clearly influenced by “Lee” and his TV shows of the early 50s).
The premise of this show is a simple one. Liberace has died and now sits behind a rhinestone-encrusted baby grand awaiting the judgement of St Peter as to whether he enters Heaven or descends to Hell. Naturally, fluffy clouds are everywhere. In what is a cross between musical tribute and reality show, Crush plays selections from the classics (“with the boring bits taken out”) and Gershwin while twinkling his way through a potted biography, laced with gently off-colour jokes, to an audience that gets to decide where Lee will spend the rest of eternity.
It is here that the first dichotomy between this and your standard fringe show becomes apparent: the audience. These are no bright young things fresh out of drama school with nothing more than a dream and a bad-taste musical to sustain them. The average age here is about 65 and clearly still carrying memories of Lee’s glory years. This is no iconoclastic challenge to the state: instead it’s a sedate, jolly sing-along that could just as easily be taking place in Eastbourne or Blackpool. Crush/Liberace is a consummate entertainer and knows just how far to take his audience. Even a dodgy Amy Winehouse/Michael Jackson joke is greeted like an old friend.
Then comes the second surprise. About two-thirds of the way through the event, writer-director Julian Woodford gets serious. St Peter (as voiced by Stephen Fry) denounces Liberace for having lied while under oath during a libel trial and Crush displays some serious acting talent in his own angry defence before describing his homosexual lovers. Given the age and arguably conservative nature of this audience, I was intrigued to see how they’d respond to such openly “out” material. I needn’t have worried. Whether it was the neutering power of camp or a genuine liberalism on the part of the general public, Lee’s confessions were greeted with not just acceptance but love. By the time judgement is called for and the voice of God (Victoria Wood) proclaims Lee’s fate the verdict is hardly in doubt, but that’s not the point.
This is an entertainment provided by a man with more than 40 years’ experience in the business: he knows his audience and doesn’t disappoint. However, it’s not simply content to be an entertainment. By displaying some of Lee’s serious side, and by playing to a demographic not normally catered to in Edinburgh, it challenges presumptions both about Crush as a performer and about what goes to make a fringe show. It could have gone further, and some of the sexual politics do seem a little outdated, but these are small complaints when faced with a show propelled by something more than just talent: it is a performance fuelled by heart that rarely misses a beat.