Doug Wright's biographical play, which accrued a reputation off-Broadway before transferring on to the Great White Way in late 2003, feels rather at sea having been plonked straight into the West End. It's not that the subject is out in left field for London audiences. British mainstream theatregoers still tend to prefer major gay characters to be unthreatening cartoons, unlike the sometimes steely achievement of Wright's subject Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in surviving as a blatant transvestite through both Nazism and the Communist DDR. Nevertheless, Charlotte's chosen avenue through life – collecting and preserving Gründerzeit furniture and antique phonograph and gramophone recordings – has enough eccentricity about it to chime with the English fondness for idiosyncrasy.
It's simply that, even in a relatively compact theatre such as the Duke of York's, such a solo drama feels dwarfed. Derek McLane's staggering backdrop, a jigsaw of clocks, gramophones, tallboys, chaises and so on, only emphasises the fact that actor Jefferson Mays is alone onstage, in a black peasant dress and headscarf, for nearly two hours (including interval). When Mays describes individual items, he takes out miniature models of them, which once again underscores the fact that one man – albeit playing a larger-than-life character (as well as a couple of dozen more, including Wright himself) – is failing to fill the stage.
It's often a fascinating story. Charlotte, not unlike Quentin Crisp, seems to have created the narrative of her own life... although Crisp never received a major state honour and then had to endure public debate about whether it should be revoked; in Charlotte's case, it emerged that she had spied for the East German Stasi in the 1970s and even denounced an antiquarian friend. The question of how much Charlotte may have polished her own history emerges only in the much shorter second act, and is left unresolved in favour of the traditional affirmative ending. Mays is an engaging performer, and Wright's script is more complex than it appears, but this is a play which needs to build a buzz, and I doubt this run will be bankrolled long enough for it to do so.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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