Review – A Life in Three Acts – Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill at the Soho Theatre

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A Life in Three Acts is actually a very odd show. I was there because I’d seen an offer in the Standard for £5 tickets; I knew almost nothing about Bette Bourne (“Bloolips” rang a little bell but I couldn’t contextualize it, like “Greek Active” might to a non-Seattlite). Reading the blurb intrigued me: drag queen extraordinaire and major figure in the early English gay rights movement? I knew almost nothing about that era other than what I’d seen in movies, and, well, I’ve been hanging out with drag queens since I was 15, so I was pleased to take up the offer and truck on over to Soho.

The format for this show is as follows: Mark Ravenhill and Bette Bourne sit on a stage, as if they were in Bette’s apartment, and chat, chronologically, about Bette’s life, recreating Mark’s original interviews at Bette’s home (which have been edited down to what we hear). Behind the stage, photos and occasionally movies are displayed (and at one point we even hear an old recording Mom Bourne made of herself singing “Ave Maria” while on an outing in central London). Mark and Bette mostly read from scripts; Mark did a better job of keeping it actually feeling like a fresh event (that is, he didn’t appear to be reading), while Bette, who had quite a career as a “straight” actor, did more reading but also enlivened her anecdotes with bawdy jokes and occasional songs.

So this isn’t a performance, per se, or a real interview; it’s a dramatization of one person’s life, and this means that much of its interest is going to hang on whether or not you are interested in them as a person. Well, I hadn’t come to satisfy some burning curiosity about Bette, but I was fascinated to hear about how one working class gay man got on with his life, from the experience of being queer in the 50s (no guilt, lots of sex, and now I understand a bit more about how and why Hampstead Heath figures in Pinter’s work), to creating a career as an actor, to the difference between working class and middle class activists (talking about philosophies in books versus living it), et cetera etc. And while all of that bio was certainly fun – the pictures of the Bloolips era made me really sad that I’d never seen them perform – it was the person that came through that was ultimately fascinating. Bette goes to auditions in a dress; walks around Notting Hill in lippy; and does this all even though, truly, society is still just not all that tolerant. But she says, “I’ve got to be me.” And, in a society where we are still having roles squashed on us and people just hate it when you don’t want to get in that box, whether you’re male or female – because God knows I’ve spent my life fighting to just have the space to be me – it was cheering to see someone who’d gone through the fire and out the other side and had got to that space where it wasn’t about shock or spectacle but just being yourself. And thanks for giving us that insight, Bette. Sure wish we could sit down and have a cup of tea and reminisce some day.

Note: on the night we went there was a presentation of “My life in 100 Words or Less,” which was fun to hear, but we did wind up having an interval though I’d thought this show ran straight through 90 minutes. Our total running time was around two hours.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010. A Life in Three Acts continues at the Soho Theatre through February 27th. As a crass ending, I’d love to add on Bette’s joke about the old queen with back problems but I’ll leave it to her to share it with you.)

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