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Big Girl’s Blouse (Soho Theatre, London): Review

big girl's blouse Now THAT's a blouse. Kate O'Donnell in 'Big Girl's Blouse'. Photograph: Courtesy of Lee Baxter.

A transcendental show! Big Girl’s Blouse is a rapturous insight into growing up trans in the 1970s: personal and splendorous.

Kate O’Donnell takes us through her life growing up trans in the 1970s, where trans simply wasn’t a concept in the way we know it today. From being deemed a “big girl’s blouse” by her father, then later living life as a gay drag artist, Angel Valentine, and then deciding to transition later in life, Big Girl’s Blouse brings theatricality, humour, song, and outright fabulousness to the stage in this glittering biography.

Writing

Trans visibility has built tremendous momentum in recent years, and not just because of Kaitlyn Jenner. It’s become more open and understood, and we’re seeing more and more fantastic allies and trans artists exploring the idea of transgenderism and what it means: take award-winning writer and film director Jake Graff for instance, and Jon Britain’s landmark play about transitioning, Rotterdam. But this is something that has only taken off in the last 15 years, tops. So imagine growing up a trans child in Coventry in the 1970s, where Danny la Rue was the most trans person around?! O’Donnell’s Big Girl’s Blouse is a show that charts her growing up in a time where trans wasn’t as widespread a concept, spending a life finding out who she always wanted to be.

I have a massive amount of admiration for any transgender person who goes out and in the world and keeps an infectious sense of humour. Transphobia is often incredibly aggressive and disgusting: and that’s coming from an ally/bystander. So the fact that O’Donnell throws buckets of glitter and laughter over herself and into Big Girl’s Blouse is just astonishing and makes the show utterly absorbing. O’Donnell also draws on her drag performance days for Big Girl’s Blouse, washing the show with a glossy devil-may-care attitude, larger than life personalities, and sharp cutting wit. But despite this, at no point Big Girl’s Blouse lose a personal connection with the audience, or becomes insufferably egotistical. Big Girl’s Blouse is interactive and open, allowing the audience to really engage and get to know O’Donnell and her life to date. Yet at the same time, O’Donnell lets the showbiz front peel away for some moments to reveal a tender and deep reflection about her life and her childhood. Overall, Big Girl’s Blouse is incredibly well paced, keeping detail and depth to the right level to never drag or become laborious, helped by O’Donnell’s opulent personality and ever changing approaches to telling her story.

The reasons that Big Girl’s Blouse is so good though is because O’Donnell is personable, theatrical, and interesting, with a deep sincerity and incredibly intelligent retrospective about her growing-up, and coming to terms with the attitudes towards LGBTQ across the decades. Big Girl’s Blouse isn’t some flippant and selfish razzle-dazzle, it’s a real life and enlightening story told in a varied, lavish, and wonderful way, with plenty of slick comic invention. We learn from the experiences of those that have gone before us, and we should absolutely listen to such stories. It just so happens that Big Girl’s Blouse is a story that you don’t want to stop listening to. This isn’t a lecture in trans-history: it’s a living, brilliantly funny, and fizzing personal testimony told with glorious effervescence, sparkle, and wit.

Direction & Production

The production team behind Big Girl’s Blouse does everything it can to make it glisten as pristinely as O’Donnell. Lee Baxter uses video work to illustrate people and certain points in the show, making the persons and places that are part of O’Donnell’s life more accessible and easier to engage with, as well as move some moments of the show along swiftly and dynamically. Jack Dale’s lighting and Jude Jagger’s musical direction matches O’Donnell’s playfulness too, whilst subtly bringing out a constant warmth alongside its wit, helping you slip into the satin happiness of Big Girl’s Blouse.

Mark Whitelaw’s direction ensures O’Donnell keeps on track and hold of the reigns at all times. There is a constant focus and direction for Big Girl’s Blouse that keeps it from wavering or wandering off. It’s a sharp stay-put tenacity for keeping the action moving, relevant, and snappy, but does not at all sacrifice the homliness and hospitality of O’Donnell and her story. O’Donnell could do this show entirely by herself with bugger all production, and it would still be great. But with the production team behind Big Girl’s Blouse has polished the diamond that is O’Donnell to a supernovic gleam.

Performance

It’s difficult to say much more about O’Donnell in her performance that hasn’t already been covered in the writing. However, O’Donnell is a seasoned and shrewd performer who is still absolutely at their prime, emitting an electric energy that is so personable it feels like a big cosy hug. You are part of O’Donnell’s show as she reacts and works with the audience, bouncing off their immediate responses and directly involving them in moving parts along. But for all the emotions, quips, and anecdotes O’Donnell fills the theatre with, not one of them feels conceited or false: it’s an exuberant warmth and experience that is fundamentally honest. The result is that you can’t help but smile in O’Donnell’s presence, but at the same time, have your heart break with hers at points. O’Donnell is an exquisite performer that is not just a joy to be around, but a privilege to share an experience with.

Verdict

A vastly entertaining and important insight, Big Girl’s Blouse is a sequin-smothered and indomitable biography that is nothing short of enlightening and elating.

Big Girl’s Blouse was performed at the Soho Theatre, London, 22-25 June 2016, as part of the Pride London Festival. For more information about Kate O’Donnell, visit kateodonnellpresents.com.