After packing dear old Kiki DuRane off to “a nursing home in New Jersey” to live out what remains of her days in splendid, gin-addled insanity, Justin Bond has set about unleashing an assortment of projects across a range of media. There’s a new album of original material, Dendrophile, and a childhood memoir due for release in autumn called Tango: My Childhood Backwards And In High Heels – a paraphrase of a Ginger Rogers quote. Now comes a new show, taking in aspects of both and collating them together with waspish asides and narratives about Bond’s life and encounters, present and past, in a cabaret setting.
Bond, having become something of an icon as half of Kiki & Herb, has stated a wish to emerge from behind the created character of Kiki . For the performer, this emergence from the chrysalis seems to pose as many questions as answers. For starters Bond, who identifies as trans, has added a middle name, Vivian, and the transgender salutation Mx and the pronoun “v” (rather than “he” or “she”) to denote being neither male nor female, but decidedly other. Bond’s website makes it all the clearer: “In the future if I see or hear the words he or she, her or him, hers or his, in reference to me, I will take it either as a personal insult, a weak mind (easily forgivable), or (worst case scenario) sloppy journalism.” If all this suggests little more than character improvisation and dressing up – or, worse, pretension – it’s perhaps inevitable given v’s ouevre. But Bond is a performer and, as such, requires props of both a physical and a linguistic nature to stage a show. It’s a logical stance for someone working out their own narrative without recourse to binary templates.
Gender identity is, of course, front and centre in Dendrophile. Accompanied by a formally dressed pianist, at various points Bond identifies with trans-sexuals and with drag queens, and discusses relationships with gays and even a lesbian. Set in the cabaret tradition of the drag act, with self-deprecating stories laced with bitchy asides and a sing-song here and there for good measure, Bond occasionally manages to look beyond the immediately personal and takes in thoughts on the legalisation of gay marriage in New York this month as well as the life and times of heroes and icons from times gone by.
While Bond may be a mix of male and female, with ‘70s glamourpuss hair offset by a rich baritone, on stage v is a mix of prime Vanessa Redgrave and the Alien Queen, charming and good company one minute and then, in the best drag queen tradition, spitting venom and screaming the next. Bond is best when ad libbing; while the structure of the material forms the basis for the evening’s entertainment, some of the most memorable bits are when circumstance throws something unexpected into the mix. Sound feedback becomes the ghosts of Aleister Crowley and Jean Genet, while a throat complaint puts illusory glamour and stagey artifice firmly in its place.
Behind the self-promotion and self-assurance, Bond is revealed to be genuinely engaging company. Listening to v’s appearance on Radio 4’s Midweek programme earlier in the week, the thought crossed my mind – not for the first time – that it’s Bond’s voice that stands out. Tonight it’s put to good use singing songs, the melodies of which are mostly forgettable. But when v speaks it’s a captivating experience.
Bond closes out with the Shortbus finale ‘In The End’, a song penned by Scott Matthew but sung by Bond in memorable fashion in John Cameron Mitchell’s film. Part way through its rendition tonight, v becomes a one person band, taking on trombone, drums and all manner else to side-splitting effect and with obvious talent and passion, yet ends the song note-perfect and with a graceful, practised bow. A near perfect mix of the personal and the artful, it’s difficult to imagine Bond in any other profession.