Those expecting an evening of burlesque from Zoe Charles’ one woman show might be disappointed – the performer is, after all, an established artiste and the founder of The Cheek of It! Burlesque School – but it’s hard to think that anyone else will walk away from this warm, funny memoir feeling anything but charmed.
This isn’t a tale of the secrets behind the sequins – though the evening begins with an eye-watering recount of a thong-related mishap that put an end to Charles’ burgeoning fame in, of all places, Serbia – but instead is a story of growing up as a misfit in a council house in the 80s, a skinny dark haired girl in a family of buxom blondes who found out in adolescence that her difference was more than wilful individuality but was, in fact, biology: that her father was actually a Polish / Lithuanian Jew, not the slightly vague posh bloke she had grown up calling Dad. It is a beautifully observed and often laugh out loud dissection of family, longing and identity that encompasses teenage alienation, religion, odd (albeit well-meaning) parents, raucous siblings, inept suitors, crappy jobs and a stoned cat called John Major (so-named because he was grey and docile).
Addressing us directly from an unadorned stage, her only prop a flipchart that guides us through the labyrinth of her complicated family relationships, Charles is an immensely likeable presence. Her family might be extreme in its eccentricity – from a father who tended to greet his children’s suitors naked (except for a strategically placed cat) to a hippy Californian mother who orchestrated a ‘welcome to womanhood’ ceremony for her 12 year old daughter that so traumatised her it put her off masturbation for years – but it also feels instantly recognisable. Charles realises that, for all the individual quirks of her upbringing, teenage angst, identity crises and fumbling sexual encounters are universal themes – and she emphasises this with an evocative soundtrack that smartly utilises everything from Bonnie Tyler to Radiohead, and which had me harking back to my own years of awkward teenage discos.
Despite the sometimes broad humour on display (you’ll never be able to look at a Hungry Hippos game the same way again), Charles doesn’t gloss over the less glamorous parts of her journey – an early reversal of fortune that saw her family homeless, an estrangement from her mother that lasted several years at the instigation of an abusive man who casts a long shadow on her family still. But all are tempered by a fierce optimism, love of family and resilience that is ultimately joyful and uplifting. With a gimlet eye for the telling detail, Charles filters the absurdity of suburbia through a wry, dry, feminist wit – think Adrian Mole meets Caitlin Moran – and it is a winning and engaging combination. While Charles’ down-to-earth charm was well-served by the intimacy of the venue, this delightful show deserves a far bigger audience.