Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Whole Theatre presents Dee Dee Stewart in her one woman show “Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales”. Written and performed by Stewart, she takes us through her hilarious childhood memories in 1980’s America, telling of the relocating of her chaotic family after her father’s death, and the journey to the woman she is now. It’s a punky, spirited performance assisted by an idiosyncratic slideshow that marries the dark and light elements of bereavement and alcoholism.
Denise is the youngest of four children who move with their recently widowed mother from the dull town of Rock Springs, Wyoming to a new home in North Carolina. Their father’s unfortunate demise provides the funding for all the mod cons in their new house, and the 5 year old Denise quickly forgets to mourn him as she relishes her brand new carpets, furniture and swimming pool. It is here that she makes her first real friend who greets her with the unforgettable question of, “what church do you belong to?” Clearly, at 5, Denise is already a big personality, holding court in her dishevelled bedroom, telling fantastical tales of murder and making crank calls.
At first everything appears rosy, but as time goes on her mother struggles to function – she, like her late husband, is an alcoholic. This results in Denise’s mother losing her job and becoming tired, sore and grumpy. Denise flips between being a naughty precocious child, portraying members of her family, and the local women who look after her when she appears on their doorsteps. Her mother’s drinking features more in her memories as she grows up, and it becomes clear that Denise is almost feral as her mother doesn’t appear to take responsibility for her daughter – particularly when she encourages a group of friends to bully another girl.
Eventually (or inevitably) Denise too begins to drink at around the age of thirteen. She wonders how no adult appears to notice her habit but then recalls that was because her mother was too drunk to be aware. Having put on a remarkable amount of weight, the teenage Denise finally finds her way to Drama College where she learns to work hard. However, this coincides with her dysfunctional family’s disintegration and, after a failed attempt by her brother to become mayor, her mother – now in danger of being diabetic and going blind – begins to prepare for death. Denise, now living halfway across the country and juggling two jobs, must now deal with her mother’s death wish.
This work is darkly comic and, despite these dark elements, an extremely humorous and enjoyable piece. The pace is bang on the money and Stewart is a master at becoming the small child whose tantrums are wickedly delicious, particularly when her mother orders her to tidy up her bedroom if she wants to go to a ball game. The audience were laughing uproariously and clearly enchanted by this woman as she bears her soul. She accurately perfects the youngest child of a family who is almost oblivious to why things are happening, yet brings the piece full circle, showing an unexpected maturity to deal with her mother’s illness. There are real quality moments such as her Michael Jackson routine or her selfish glee when her brother fails to achieve to be the town’s mayor.
It’s set in her chaotic bedroom and from the onset she is surrounded by Barbies. She explains that it’s through Barbies that she discovers sex and, even though Barbie represents a woman that doesn’t exist, the doll plays a major role in her discovery of herself. She bemoans the lack of an insomniac or alcoholic Barbie and uses the dolls to enhance her story telling, her dancing drunken dating scene when she arrives at college is a total hoot. Stewart is vibrant in her self-penned role, and her tomboyish bratty self, reminiscent of a young Doris Day at times, is a wholly believable singing, strutting, dancing child. The intriguing slides shown on the screen behind (after a slight technical hitch at the beginning is quickly sorted) are either childhood pictures or impish doodling, and they announce the direction the piece is going, working as strong visual cue points.
Stewart manages to project the indifference a child can feel when a parent is self-absorbed and, despite her mother’s dependency on drink and tobacco, she enjoys when her mother’s best friend – also a drunk – adds to the chaos by spending hours drunk in their bathroom. We travel with her all the way to college and eventually to the final days of her mother, and it is never an uncomfortable experience. I have no doubt that this piece came about as a way to make sense of everything that happened to her, but Stewart is no way maudlin or bitter and her obvious love of the life she’s been given absolutely comes across.