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Ben Rimalower Double Bill (St James Theatre, London): Review

rimalower Hey, big spender. Ben Rimalower. Photograph: Courtesy of Aaron Mark.

Ben Rimalower’s two solo shows burst with a deep and captivating honesty: one bittersweet and personal, the other unflinchingly funny but raw.

Ben Rimalower brings his two acclaimed solo shows, Patti Issues and Bad With Money to London. The first talks about Rimalowers obsession with Broadway diva Patti LuPone and the troubled relationship with his gay father, and the other looks at Rimalower’s life as a spending addict.

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Patti cake, Patti cake. Ben Rimalower in action. Photograph: Courtesy of Gustavo Monroy.

Writing

American one person shows are a bit of a strange beast. They have the air of being very personal, but often suffer from being so overproduced that their sincerity seems quite forced. But if anything, it’s more that its an element that usually irks British audiences rather than detracts from some great shows which are still thoroughly enjoyable, enlightening, and entertaining, like Leslie Jordan’s Fruit FlyIn some ways, Rimalower shows are no different, notably in that he has tuned his life experiences into a very precise script. But what he brings to his shows is a personality and a humility that makes him utterly captivating to watch, not to mention that the two shows are unique and incredibly interesting insights into his life.

With Patti Issues, Rimalower manages to really get to deep in the complexity of the fractious relationship he had with his gay biological father, the effect it had on his family dynamic, how it influenced and affected his own progression through life, and his obsession with LuPone. Patti Issues is is littered with surprising little parallels and quietly provocative examinations at the role of family, the effect of sexuality, and the collateral of obsession. Although, far from any raucous tell-all exposé about family dysfunction and celebrity gossip, Rimalower still manages to embroider a wistful comic persuasion through the entire show that really helps to keep you engaged, but never at the expense of belittling its intimacy or the people involved in his story.

In Bad With Money, many of the same points about Rimalower’s writing as mentioned in Patti Issues can be said again here. Except this time, the subject is a touch more serious. With several amusing and quietly sensational anecdotes about drugs and prostitution, we’re taken through an incredibly brave look at not just his addictions and the effects it had on those around them, but our response we have as a society to these struggles. It’s unnervingly surprising to have someone be so frank about spending addiction, and humbly lambasting us and asking us why its something not talked about like other addictions, such as alcoholism and drug abuse. The biggest kicker of them all in Bad With Money though, is the fact that Rimalower admits that this is still an ongoing issue with them. To have all this incredibly insightful documentation of one person’s struggle being revealed as still unresolved adds a tremendous currency and gravity to the show that makes it stay with you.

The only issue with Rimalower’s double bill is that sometimes, for all the wonderful anecdotes and stories, it starts to get a bit difficult to clearly see the point he is working towards. Thankfully, his experiences and the retelling of them are so engrossing that this can be forgiven because you seldom find yourself un-entertained. There are also perhaps too many American and musical theatre trivia that those who aren’t in the know as much might find themselves a little bewildered. Then again, given that Rimalower is a musical theatre geek from America, these are unavoidable, and in fairness he’s aware and responsive to this fact and adjusts accordingly.

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Hey, big spender. Ben Rimalower. Photograph: Courtesy of Aaron Mark.

Direction & Production

Rimalower’s shows are very simple affairs, but that doesn’t mean that nothing needs to be done with them. Directing both Patti Issues and Bad With Money is Aaron Mark. Although, for the majority of the shows, Mark lets Rimalower do their thing, there are constant little tweaks and controls that ensure the pace and focus stays as much on the straight and narrow as possible. There are some very subtle lighting changes throughout, and more than a few stage directions that Rimalower follows, such as times he sits on stools, or speaking from different areas of the stage. All of this really helps to keep both shows moving, keeping your interest outside of Rimalower’s charismatic presence without you even realising it.

Performance

Rimalower themselves is what really makes both Patti Issues and Bad With Money, as they’re a most charming and captivating person. An incredible and genuine sincerity that does away with any stagey hubris comes across the entire time. But what really marks Rimalower’s performance out is just how responsive and interactive they are with the audience. Rimalower, in their performance here in London, knows that they’re in London, therefore constantly checking with the audience about American references, and making little jokes and interactions out of these. You constantly get the sense that you’re an invited party to Rimalower’s tales, and not an audience to be spoken at. The result is that Rimalower’s personality and charm keeps you hooked for an entire two hours with you seldom noticing the time or wanting Rimalower to shush for a bit. I can’t think of anyone else I would enjoy being stuck in a room with for so long, as Rimalower is certainly as enchanting and fascinating a performer, in both person and personal history, as they come.

Verdict

Fascinating stories told by a captivating personality, Rimalower’s Patti Issues and Bad With Money are singular sensations.

Patti Issues and Bad With Money plays at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 12 March 2016.  Tickets are £17.50 – £20. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.