The pre-show tape plays significant numbers about roles and perceptions, from the Velvet Underground's "I'll be Your Mirror" to Roxy Music's "Editions Of You", setting a high target for the show itself. That the 90-minute supposed rock concert with extended between-songs patter which is Hedwig And The Angry Inch fails to attain that target is due to a number of little things rather than any glaring shortcomings.
John Cameron Mitchell has tweaked his text to be more Brit-specific, although now and again white-trash references to the likes of Monster Truck events cannot be translated, and draw polite but only semi-comprehending chuckles; the rock-heritage references, though, are a consistent joy. The basic story is a blend of Wayne/Jayne County (to whom Michael Cerveris as Hedwig bears a strong resemblance) and Nina Hagen: East German boy makes it to the West by having the unkindest cut of all, just a year before the Wall comes down – meets soul mate, educates him in the ways of the world and grooms him for success – is abandoned by him – re-attains "other half" in a final sequence which is certainly mystical and may reveal the entire story as no more than a metaphor, although by that point I'm afraid I was lost.
Stephen Trask's music, played by a classic two-guitar (or guitar and keyboards)/bass/drums rock line-up, is generally conventional enough genre stuff – in particular, "angry" equals Noo Yawk punk (and more Jayne County flashbacks); his lyrics tend more towards the self-conscious and occasionally overblown, most obviously in the final number, although that is so baldly a '70s Mandrax-and-glam rewrite of David Bowie's "Rock'n'Roll Suicide" that it hardly counts.
The conceptual trouble with the material is twofold. It may not matter to many that transsexuality is used simply as a gimmick – after all, gender-bending in rock has been good enough for a long and honourable catwalk parade from Bowie to Brian Molko of Placebo. I must admit, though, that it irked me personally; although Hedwig's tribulations are by and large intended to be so grotesque that they cannot but be comic, I could introduce Mitchell and Trask to one or two women who used to be men whose stories go way beyond what is presented on the Playhouse stage, and are entirely devoid of laughs. Principally, however, the show runs up against the same problem which bedevilled Boyband on Shaftesbury Avenue last year: we simply don't need such fictionalised pop/rock tales when our voracious media feed us the real thing writ just as large every day, especially when its subjects have enough nous to parody themselves from the word go. Hedwig is a natural off-Broadway show which is adrift both in the West End and amid a tabloid Brit culture that has rendered it redundant.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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