FringeReview Scotland 2014
Claire Willoughby, as a shy Parcelforce worker, gets applause as a singer before she hears the spoken word from Freddy Mercury. She hears the same pain as her shy self, spoken by this superstar and takes that as a sign to become a highly successful impersonator before that shyness gives way to arrogance and an unlikely end upon a ship.
We walk into a messy stage upon which the messiness of Claire Willoughby’s character performs. We firstly see her perform a couple of well know classics in what is probably some local bar. We then have her at work before she takes us home. There isn’t much at home until we hear the TV give her Freddy Mercury. Once she has heard the word she is transfixed. She sends for her new costume, looks online at YouTube for make up tips and then makes adjustments that are all her own. Once she becomes the doyen of a national TV final, is on the tour that follows this all proves her undoing. Once she has fallen out of favour all that is left are the cruises that don’t cruise. Booked on one she goes off and whilst at sea it sinks.
This has a very interesting core to it. The idea that the shy retiring torch singer can escape that self esteem issue through being someone else has certainly been explored before but this time destruction follows from within. Somewhere after the beginning of the Mercury fantasy began I was lost to it though. It had me at the beginning and I could see how the narrative made sense but there came a point where I began to lose confidence in the story.
Claire Willoughby is a gifted performer. Captivating and able to use simplicity to capture those who may have a lack of self esteem and confidence this begins in a fantastic place. The first encounters when she was singing, at work and at home were tremendous. The realisation that Freddy Mercury may be a soul mate was great as well as the make up training and the whole sock v birdseed and condom debate. It was then that I was lost to the storyline. I just didn’t believe that the impersonation was good enough to win a national competition. It lost credibility there and perhaps a smaller vehicle was needed. The arrogance may have come too early and the packaging of the story been too much. I thought that the extremes didn’t fit with the subtleties with which Willoughby had begun. In particular I didn’t find the nudity in character or really in the arc of the story. This may have been deliberate and therefore all that happened was that I found it incongruent.
The set was very functional, very messy and added little to the piece. What did add hugely was the soundscape. Hearing Mercury himself was a tremendous help to the narrative and aided the understanding of what she was going through onstage. I really liked that. What I didn’t like was the falling apart and particularly the whole baby powder thing being thrust upon us. It just didn’t make sense. The laugh it got because it looked like this impersonator was snorting baby powder was pathos rather than hilarious.
As a performance piece this was challenging and successful in making me think about ego/alter ego, about escape and the refusal to face your own demons. It caused some debate and discussion but that soon became more about the structure of the piece rather than the message. In amongst all this there is the alter ego of a piece trying to break free (sorry), it just needs to scale back in my opinion and have faith that the story has strength rather than jump into the big issue by trying to have some form of massive platform – a national tour – as its launch pad for the second half. I would have found it more tragic, heart warming and challenging had this been kept local. Overall though King does make you think.