I think DollyWould has quite possibly the best-written listing in the Edinburgh Fringe programme:
‘Oh look, 2016 Fringe First winners Sh!t Theatre again. What is it this time? Oh, is it unemployment? Is there a crisis? Did the government do something wrong again? No, it’s a show about Dolly Parton. We f*cking love her.’
DollyWould, as Sh!t Theatre’s Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole declare wryly throughout the show, is their ‘mainstream crossover hit’. This makes me feel special as I feel like I knew Sh!t Theatre before they were cool (actually, they were always cool, but before they won a Fringe First). This was completely by accident – I happened to be at a theatre festival in Cambridge and got a £5 ticket for Guinea Pigs on Trial. I remember being a bit disappointed that something cataclysmically dramatic didn’t happen to them while they were doing the medical trials (though now I think that let down was an intrinsic part of the show), and really loving the songs. At last year’s fringe, I saw Letters to Windsor House and had ‘Rob Jecock is an adult baby’ stuck in my head for a good few months.
But I have a confession to make. I only know the very very mainstream bits of Dolly Parton. (Otherwise I would have written this review as a Dolly Parton song or something). I would not consider myself a Dolly-Parton fan, especially not a superfan. As I was watching the show, in my head I was conducting an exercise trying to spot who were the Sh!t Theatre fans and who were the Dolly Parton fans, and whether anyone was in the centre of that very specific Venn Diagram apart from the Sh!t Theatre team themselves.
And Becca and Louise really do fucking love Dolly. In the show, they document via slide show their pilgrimage to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Dolly Parton-themed theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. They left Dollywood with enough Dolly Parton-themed merchandise to start a tribute act and Dolly’s face tattooed on their upper thighs. In the show, Becca and Louise dress up like Dolly, or as a drag version of her that gets more and more extreme. At one point, they put on giant beanbag boob costumes (one each, together they’re a pair) and pop balloons by belly-flopping on top of them beanbag boob first. It looks really fun. It is really fun to watch.
The show is not just about Dolly Parton. It’s also about Dolly the sheep (named after Dolly). They manage to make the cognitive leap between the two by wearing woolly Dolly Parton wigs and by interviewing a geneticist and harpist (?!) who says that cloning is like performance: although clones share the same genetic material, each clone is a different performance of those genes. Dolly’s efforts to embalm her own legacy before she’s died through her theme park is paralleled with the other attraction Sh!t Theatre visited in Tennessee: The Body Farm, which leaves donated dead bodies out in a variety of situations to see how they decay. I was sitting next to a photocopier that was printing out images of a skull superimposed onto Dolly Parton’s face. Death. Authenticity. Fame. Legacy. Performance. They start the show with an anecdote about the time when Dolly Parton herself entered a Dolly Parton-drag competition. When you are a performer and start to become known for a certain style, at what point do you become a parody of yourself?
Despite Sh!t Theatre’s assertions that this is just a show about Dolly Parton, underneath the shimmering, pink, pneumatic breasted-surface there is a hard, political edge. About how female performers negotiate gender. They play a mashup of all the interviews of Dolly that mention her breasts or her bodily appearance. They are reducing Dolly to her boobs because they are a metonym for her in so many people’s minds. And about the economics of performance. They emphasise Dolly Parton’s working class roots and her drive to make money as a performer. In the theatre and art world, making money is generally scorned as a motivation for making art. ‘Commercial theatre’ is often seen as less worthy, less pure. But theatre makers have to make a living. You can be pretty sure that neither Dolly Parton nor Sh!t Theatre are working 9-5.
In DollyWould, Sh!t Theatre reflect on the conflicts and strains of their practice, of becoming more popular and working out how to monetise that success. The reception of Dolly Parton is a reminder that the scorn of that popular mainstream figures attract is gendered and classed. But there’s nothing wrong with setting out to make accessible, enjoyable work. (As a side note, even if this show is a little more ‘mainstream’ than some of their other work, it’s still a long way from commercial theatre). Whether or not DollyWould is actually mainstream, in the show’s blend of songs, boobs, and engagement with the politics of performance, it’s certainly a hit.
DollyWould is on until 27 August 2017 at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Click here for more details.