Ruby Wax has frequently declared that, in her days in the RSC, she really wasn't a very good actress at all. Although we know from some of the scams on her television shows that that isn't quite the whole story (virtually all of those "spontaneous", "embarrassing" episodes are pre-arranged), nevertheless the London press night of her one-woman show Stressed tended to confirm that her talent in that direction is limited. Not that she launched into any great dramatic segments or anything like that; no, what she gave us were two fifty-minute chunks of Waxian patter. But the bizarre part is that she was palpably acting Ruby Wax.
Perhaps Wax was nervous at facing a house almost completely filled with journalists (virtually every seat in the Tricycle had one of those little "Reserved for..." labels attached), but even when she lighthoused her gaze across the audience, the strong impression was that her eyes were not actually seeing any of us; they had the glazed look of the performer doing a move. Likewise, Stressed is very obviously scripted almost to the word; even the dangling phrases, repetitions and interjections are all delivered with a precision and deliberateness that, in someone of Wax's reputation, is bewildering and a little unsettling. This is playwright Martin Sherman's first formal directing gig, and he makes sure Wax sticks to the script and to her moves and vocal intonations, but neither of them seems to have realised that Ruby Waxman needs at least to give the illusion of flying more freely in order to be "Ruby Wax".
Perhaps, then, Wax feels circumscribed by the fact that she is "dealing with her own issues" in this piece. Although routines about the like of Paris fashion shows and the American lust to "have ancestry" are occasionally inserted, the bulk of the segments arise to some degree or other out of Wax's own uneasy childhood, her awkwardness with her parents both then and now, and her disquiet at finding herself now having to be a parent. The bits about resolving her own anger and uncertainty are double-bluffs, or rather would be if the whole evening did not feel so strictly reined in. Paradoxically, I find myself now quite keen to make Wax's acquaintance offstage, but more because of what her show conceals than what it reveals. After two hours, we know much more about her, but we know Wax herself almost less than ever. In this way, Stressed breaks one of the fundamental maxims of theatre: it tells us about the real, thinking, feeling person behind Wax's brazen image, but it's too diffident to show us truly. Ruby Wax, of all people, has no need for such diffidence.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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