Lynda Radley’s new play, a Traverse co-production with Dundee Rep, is set during the last gasp of the circus freak show. Riley’s Odditorium is no longer making money, people don’t want to be seen staring, drinking their fill of the weird; he needs a new strategy, a new selling point, in order to keep the money coming in, to keep his troupe fed and clothed.
He decides that normalisation is the way forward. That people want to see change, improvement, growth. They no longer want to feel like voyeurs; they want to be inspired. Riley’s family of freaks are less convinced. His troupe includes conjoined twins, Millie and Lillie; the hermaphrodite, George/Georgina; the Countess Marketa, who in Riley’s eyes is doubly blessed being both armless and luxuriantly bearded; and Tiny, a spectacularly fat man. There is also Serena, who despite being mute, has nothing else overtly unusual about her – this makes her a figure of suspicion. Radley’s well-researched piece explains the hierarchy of freaks: the distinctions between the ‘reals’ and those who are ‘made’. The ‘gaffs,’ those who fake it, are lower on the ladder and the novelty acts lower still.
The circus freak show has, of course, never really gone away, just evolved, been televised, and there are contemporary parallels to be drawn between this sideshow world and our one. Radley’s play shows how people will give themselves permission to gawp if they feel that the objects of their attention are attempting to fix themselves, to become ‘normal,’ even it means going under the knife to do so.
Dominic Hill’s production, lavishly designed by Colin Richmond, captures the faded sideshow aesthetic. But while there’s an abundance of fat-suits and face-wigs on display, there’s also a tender and human quality to things. One of the most successful scenes sees the characters waltzing together, each moving to the particular rhythm imposed by their own bodies.
There’s some nice ensemble playing throughout but, if anything, Radley’s play overdoes the family parallels; the narrative progresses in fits and starts and there’s little sense of tension. With so many characters to juggle, a few of the narrative strands are left to fray and trail. The twins increasing discontent at their situation never fully engages and other more intriguing narrative avenues are left unexplored; the enigmatic Serena is abruptly cast aside and it’s difficult to grasp why the seemingly proud, confident Marketa (played with a permanent purr by Irene Macdougall) so quickly embraces – so to speak – this new way of living.
Lesley Hart’s George/Georgina is the one character who stays true to who she is. There’s no surgical fix for her and it’s never fully clear whether she’d accept one if there was. The final scenes (subtle in comparison to a lot of what has gone before) show her accepting the fluidity of her gender identity while also underlining the proximity of his/her world to ours.