If the only necessary ingredient for a thrilling autobiographical show was a thrilling life, La JohnJoseph would probably have enough material for a career’s worth of intriguing performance work. Still, a roller-coaster life story can only ever be a dramaturgical starting point. That’s the main issue with Boy In A Dress, a piece made up of three earlier, shorter works: I Happen To Like New York, Underclass Hero and Notorious Beauty.
It starts (as so many things do nowadays) with a Foucauldian joke, and progresses into a two hour memoir, which never quite finds the right form for telling the story at hand. What’s essentially on offer here is a linear journey through La JohnJoseph’s life: from a council estate up-bringing with numerous step-fathers, through teenage years spent both in a posh Catholic school and in various public toilets, to the New York escapades that include both a career as a call-girl and a none too friendly encounter with Homeland Security.
Sticking closely to the drag-cabaret genre, the performance switches between stories drawn from life and songs. This simple format is very much reliant on the strength of the narrative and the mesmerising charm of La JohnJoseph. As he delivers one anecdote after another, often referencing his strict Catholicism and his cross-dressing in the space of two minutes, things become increasingly predictable; what starts as a quick-fire account of what it is to grow up third-gendered, soon mutates into a slightly patronising lecture on how being different helps define those who are more ‘standard’. It remains unclear why these three separate works were stitched together, because try as they might, they fail to reach a sense of unity: the only thing that ties them together is the central character.
The result is a production with three different beginnings and no real end; having meandered around La JohnJoseph’s life for a considerable time the performance takes on a forced theatricality. Even Cleo Pettitt’s stage design underlines the fact that Boy In A Dress lacks coherence and narrative unity. The set includes both a huge closet (for coming out of) and a city scape of New York, as well as an improvised bar/piano area (for the MD Jordan Hunt), and several other generic bits and pieces, all slightly washed-out and shabby.
These textual drawbacks have an effect on La JohnJoseph’s performance. Though this is the kind of piece which undoubtedly fluctuates from night to night, the general impression is that the sheer abundance of things to say and do, stop him from glittering as much as he might. Though he’s a performer of considerable charm, this gets overwhelmed by all the various change-overs and a desperation to keep up the pace. As a result there’s less opportunity to build a rapport with the audience. The use of direct address feels forced and potentially promising moments – such as the Virgin Mary’s appearance in the closet, or the tragicomic story of the many stepfathers – lose their poignancy in among the visual clutter.
Somewhere behind all this, there is more than enough material to create a dramatic and compelling autobiographical show about gender politics. As it stands however, all the tantalising sparkle and rubble of La John Joseph’s life remain frustratingly hidden from view.