All cards on the table: I’m a long-time fan of the Arcola Queer Collective. Over the course of their existence, the amateur-professional queer collective has performed a diverse array of material from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a queer Little Prince, always with warmth, fun, creativity, glitter, and a comfortable, cozy feeling of community. The double-billing of Fine and Dandy and The Cluedo Club Killings which kicks off the Queer Collective’s 2018 Creative/Disruption festival is an exuberant continuation of their work, and it functions delightfully well as a double-billed act. It may not seem like it at first glance though – how can a music-hall farce about Jewish immigrant intersex male-impersonator and a Cluedo-based farce have anything in common?
Fine and Dandy welcomes us into its turn of the 20th century world (and the Arcola Studio 2) with a set of bright orange circus bunting, many oversized leather trunks, and a frenzy of raucous, misbehaving circus performers led by a neurotic and stressed ringmaster. Tensions seem to be running high, but with a teasing playfulness underneath. The play then truly begins with a Jewish funeral, marked by the singing of the kaddish, and kippot hairclipped into each character’s hair. ‘Here lies Ernest Fine, of Minsk and Manchester,’ the ringmaster-now-rabbi tells the congregation. Ernest, ‘she—no, he—they?’ – was a male impersonator, bringing their magic tricks and clever charms from Eastern Europe to England. But that’s not really enough to encapsulate Ernest’s life or identity.
And so we begin: in classic music-hall style, the ensemble takes on a plethora of roles – first Ernest’s siblings, then factory workers, then vaudeville performers. We are told in the very show-and-tell style of the genre that Ernest was born into a large family (cue six baby grows strung up on a clothesline), to parents who have no idea what to do with a child whose gender and sex are indeterminate. We bounce from Minsk to Liverpool to Manchester with Ernest, as they are abandoned by their family. Ernest tries to fit into factory life, fixing machines (which are cleverly comprised of the ensemble posed in various mechanical positions, tooting out the notes of ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ as the machines get repaired), but as a ‘Yid’ and ‘a… whatever’, there’s double reason for others to discriminate.
Along the way, they stumble into the world of male-impersonators and Dandy’s arms. Abandoned by a family in Hackney, Dandy has lived a life on the road, and recently escaped from the clutches of Lulu, the snake-charmer who lured Dandy into their act with Ethel the snake and promises of morphine. Dandy opens up Ernest’s world, introducing them to pig-fat-cooked fish and chips (at which point, God hilariously appears with a white, curly beard and shimmering arms to scold Ernest for breaking kashrut), and the world of impersonation in which people like them can belong. Rach Skyer’s wide-eyed Ernest plays innocent charm and exuberance well alongside Dandy’s (Dani Singer) winning smile, and together, Fine and Dandy tour the Western Front of World War I with their terrible, but terribly charming, act.
The whole show is a bit of a whirlwind, and it suffers from its compactness at times. I wanted more of everything: more Dandy, more time exploring Jewish northern England with the realities of casual anti-Semitism and the influx of Jewish immigrants changing the culture of the area. As a queer Jew, I’m absolutely starved for narratives like this, in which queer history crisscrosses with Jewish immigration. Time speeds up and slows down, what was lost gets found, line dancing is invented, and things tie up very neatly and very quickly, as the genre demands.
But more importantly, Fine and Dandy is good fun, with a wonderful balance of play and thoughtfulness. Like Tipping the Velvet adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel by Laura Wade, Fine and Dandy doesn’t label its characters with contemporary queer identities. We read Earnest as intersex and non-binary, but Ernest as a person is just… them.
Death, playfulness of genre, and the importance (or unimportance) of labels all swirl within The Cluedo Club Killings. When a member of the university’s Cluedo Club is found dead in the kitchen with a knife in their gut, detective (and psychology student) Esther Jones knows it’s her time to use the tropes of her favourite genre to solve the case. Despite the fact that, y’know, the police have their own investigative process based in evidence and logic, Esther knows that she can get to the answer first.
It’s a classic whodunit, of course, but with queer camp and unconventionally self-aware characters. Esther’s friend Stu insists that using the fictional tropes of the murder mystery genre is useless in solving real-life crime, and will get Esther into trouble. Jo, the cute and sweet videographer for the student TV channel, suggests using horror genre tropes might be more helpful. And Mrs Peacock certainly knows her Agatha Christie. Every twist and turn in the investigative process has Esther befuddled, but she’s determined to use the rules of murder mysteries, and the Golden Age of the genre to prove that she’ll uncover the truth, and it’ll all wrap up in a neat bow.
Instead, for a while, Esther’s investigations make everything go from bad to worse. She alienates the Cluedo Club friends from each other, and even dear Stu. As she struggles to figure out which kind of story she’s in, she and Stu tick off every classic detective show. There’s no way she’s Sherlock, or Inspector Morse, because they’re all cis-het white male-fests. But she’s not the minority tokenization episode either, seeing as she’s in the main role. Mrs Peacock does point out though that everyone’s odds of murder are much higher given that us queers never make it to the end.
The staging is equally playful, drawing on queer campy melodrama. There’s a bit of ‘Pink Panther’ music, a coffin used as a hospital bed, and a nurse who gives her patients a kiss on the forehead with every check-up. Everyone dresses according to their Cluedo character’s colour scheme and personality. I personally adored Mrs Peacock’s dress and shimmering glitter-beard, as well as her sarcasm. Miss Scarlet gasps and flirts with everyone while rocking brilliant true red glittered lipstick and a red ballgown, Colonel Mustard is everyone’s favourite posh snob, Professor Plum is a little too close to the mark as a PhD student, and Ms White and Reverend Green are bickering siblings. Each of their deaths are revealed to us with TV broadcasts from the student TV channel (shot on my all-too-familiar stomping grounds of Queen Mary University).
So of course to solve the mystery, one has to think outside the genre tropes, but also look to the biggest, most violent cliché that permeates CSI and real life: the possessive rage of some cis-het white men. The real answer though, without giving the fun away, requires looking beyond monogamy. Sure, there’s some preachiness to all of it, but these are important messages that aren’t preached enough. With so many tropes out there to play with, most of which don’t acknowledge queer identities, it’s satisfying to have one where the ending is the long-awaited kiss between queer women.
Fine and Dandy and The Cluedo Club Killings are on until 2 March. Creative/Disruption runs through 14 April 2018 with productions from the Arcola’s other diverse collectives. Click here for more details.