“I think there’s a lot that’s expected from a drag queen – crude jokes and lip-synching – and that’s not what I’m about at all.” So said drag artiste Le Gateau Chocolat in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek recently. In Black this statement is confirmed. There might be a hint of disco and a moment or two of camp, but the show carries far more emotional depth than a boozy night at Molly Mogg’s.
Black is about being different: black, big, gay and depressed. Through recorded interviews with director Ed Burnside and charming animations by Mark Charlton we learn about Le Gateau’s childhood joys and sorrows, his upbringing in Lagos, and his boredom while working as an overqualified, overtalented and underwhelmed NHS Direct call centre agent. Black by name, the show is also darkly upsetting – practically bleak – in places. Mercifully, however, restrained flashes of comedy and his confident and fully physical performances provide enough light relief to prevent the show dissolving into full-on self-recrimination.
From the outset Le Gateau dispenses with sequinned camp. An opening performance of Elisabeth’s aria ‘Dich, teure halle’ from Wagner’s opera TannhÃ¤user sets the tone. It’s hard to be sure which ‘beloved hall’ Le Gateau is singing about: the dingy little bedroom on stage, the theatre itself or theatre as his natural performance space. It hardly matters; if you don’t appreciate German opera, you will surely appreciate a bravura performance in Le Gateau’s rumbling and soaring baritone. You might also appreciate the Joan Sutherland-esque wig: within the surprisingly diverse field of professional bearded drag divas, this is as far from Conchita Wurst as you can get.
Le Gateau’s repertoire is sensitive and canny. Accompanied by pianist Chad Kelly, his performances take in a range of classic and modern songs to tell his story. Purcell’s achingly sad aria ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Dido and Aeneas caps an upsetting interview in which Le Gateau recalls the suicidal depths of his depression. Serena’s aria ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ from Porgy & Bess provides an opportunity to fall in step with ‘old man sorrow’ for a time, while a chilling performance of ‘Strange Fruit’ – a song famously associated with Billie Holliday – recalls the brutality meted out to people who dare to be different.
Throughout the performances Le Gateau’s voice is a treat. Within a few bars we hear growling despair, softly-spoken hope and soaring joy. He can drop from tremulous operatic heights to a plaintive sotto voce with enviable ease, switching registers and changing mood with the abruptness of a jump cut.
It’s evident that Le Gateau’s heart is in opera and theatre. Even so, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ will live on in many an audience member’s mind as the show’s high point, for its rearrangement as a lament, as much as for its brightly funny introduction. In barely sixty minutes Black provides Le Gateau Chocolat with an opportunity to take his audience into abyssal despair, while at the same time lifting hearts and souls with his irrepressible love of song and performance.