Bette Bourne is one of the most compelling figures I have ever seen on a stage. From his entrance on the first occasion I saw him, several years ago in Neil Bartlett's Sarrasine, simply by his immobile presence commanding the audience into silence for the minute and more until he uttered his first foul-mouthed line, this sometime drag actor marked himself out as being among the first rank of charismatic performers. One of the most entertaining and instructive hours I have spent in a theatre was supposed to be a discussion about drag featuring Bourne; he simply turned up with a few bagsful of stuff and chatted easily whilst rummaging around and spontaneously creating a variety of impressive sartorial effects.
Now he has been cast as an equally magnetic figure. Tim Fountain's Resident Alien is, as its slug-line remarks, "based on the life and writings of Quentin Crisp", and Bourne becomes Crisp almost to the life. True, his voice lacks the nasality of Crisp's imperious wheedle, but he delivers his lines in exactly the same serene, confidently flowing manner. Geoff Rose has created in the Bush's small space a convincing facsimile of the crammed, cluttered, filthy New York room in which Crisp has lived for 18 years now (his observation that after the first four years, the dust doesn't get any worse, must have heartened several generations of bedsit bachelors by now) in which, under Mike Bradwell's direction, Bourne potters: getting himself ready for a meeting which never takes place, retrieving dead mice posted through his letter-box by a weird upstairs neighbour, and cooking on his twin electric rings one of the most revolting fried eggs ever seen by human eyes.
Fountain both assembles Crisp's greatest epigrammatic hits ("Never get into a narrow double bed with a wide single man", for instance) with a sure touch and knits them together with material which is plausibly in character. Bourne, on the press night, stumbled a few times over his lines, but on each occasion his charisma kept the audience purring for the few seconds until he felt firm ground underfoot once more. He also gently picks on members of the audience, but not in the manner of a comedian; when, as Crisp, he decries the tendency among some gay people towards uniform appearance codes, a simple, slow, still, baleful glare at a front-row punter is enough to send us into stitches. He can also play us so skilfully as to engineer a complete transition within a few seconds from joyous guffawing to poignant silence. Bourne, as much as Crisp, is one of the stately homos of England; the combination of the two is irresistible.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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