Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED, November 11 to 13, 2014
If you didn't know that Charles Busch was a distinguished icon of off–Broadway theatre, and you wandered across the lobby from Brasserie Zedel, you'd be forgiven for thinking – why have they hired this lame pub drag act?
For this is a much mellower being than the blousey female impersonator who wowed New York in the 70s and 80s with his high camp mini–extravaganzas where he channelled his beloved divas such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in shows with such devilishly titled as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
Always wanting to play London and a devoted Anglophile, what he served us here though was puzzlingly and deadeningly timid. Even his wafting chiffon was matronly. Transporting drag from a pub stage, where it's generally crude, or an underground theatre, where it might be pointedly political, to a cabaret stage, is not an easy task. Here, the humour wasn't sharp enough and the singing didn't hit the mark. His raison d'etre all those years wasn't, after all, to become a great vocalist, so why now make that the focus?
Recently the BFI got in hot water for re–branding its Lesbian and Gay Film Festival as 'BFI Flare' the reason being they claimed was that their research showed that for the 20 and 30 something crowd, they were desperately trying to woo, that "gay" was considered over. While one could summon many counterarguments, this show with its drag museum feel made one ponder if they had a point. It's certainly for those of "a certain age" and those for whom the manufactured images of womanhood and the fantasies they inspire hold much more sway than they do today.
Cabaret depends on making a personal connection and the ironic distance of drag or its show–off nature always runs counter to that grain so Busch was often left floundering here. The exquisitely tender 'Hello Young Lovers' was morphed into a camp melodrama and it was only on Harold Arlen's 'I Wonder What Became of Me' that he connected emotionally with the material. Accompanied by a very able pianist, Tom Judson, he let him sing solo on 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' but only to fitfully pull focus from the sidelines. Either destroy the song or respect it, but don't try and fail at both.
Perhaps it was jet–lag or opening night jitters but he was also painfully under–rehearsed. He forgot the set, started in the middle of rambling anecdotes and thus killed the punchlines.
The set included no less than three medleys, a pet hate of mine. One of these stood out however, a set of songs with great linking dialogue inspired by the trashy 40s desert film noir Detour. At least here we saw evidence of the Tony nominated playwright he is. Another section was devoted to his fictional alter–ego, Miriam Paisman, a very tired lounge singer. No doubt the model here was Bette Midler's glorious creation, Vickie Eydie, but instead this ended up dangerously close to what he was offering us 'straight'