It’s not every Sunday that you escape the dreary London rain with a bit of family friendly LGBT theatre, but on one particular grey Sunday afternoon that’s exactly where I found myself. Last weekend, Irish company Super Paua brought a little piece of optimistic sparkle to the Chelsea Theatre’s SACRED season with their latest production Aunty Ben.
Although it isn’t uncommon for theatre peddled to the 7+ age range to come with a strong moral standpoint, it isn’t often that the message teaches the understanding and welcoming of non-binary genders and sexual identity. Inspired by one of the fabulous Drag Queens of London, Sian Ní Mhuirí’s original text follows the story of nine-year-old Tracey as she discovers her school friends are not immediately willing to accept her gender bending uncle/drag queen Aunty Ben. Tracey is lucky to have been raised in a family with a loving approach towards the variety of the spectrum of gender identity – which is no mean feat when you consider the show’s rural Irish setting – so you struggle to feel too angry at her young friends who are both scared and confused by the new concept of an Aunty Ben. Based on the chorus of childish giggles that greeted Ben’s first entrance, it’s fair to assume a number of children had been brought along to introduce them to this new concept.
Herein lies the success of Aunty Ben – the boldness and unapologetic approach of the writing to this subject matter for an audience that hasn’t even reached their teens. Veda Beaux Reves strides around the stage as the sanguine Aunty Ben, delivering motivating and truly heartfelt speeches about self-love and confidence that will surely ring in the ears of confused prepubescents as they approach their difficult tween years. The show also does not shy away from the difficulties of the subject – Tracey’s mother warns her that school bullies don’t just disappear, they grow up with you, and therefore there is no quick fix to her problems. The continual message is to trust in yourself and your loved ones, and above all take pride in the person you are. In a particularly touching speech Tracey’s father explains that pride isn’t always easy, that you have to work at it, but it’s certainly worth it in the long run.
The downfall of the show is that Katherine Murphy’s production never quite matches up to its honourable intentions. There are many humorous moments, often provided by Reves with her sassy to-audience adlibs, but the cabaret stylings of our leading queen don’t really mesh with the earnest performance style of her cast mates. More than once do the actors stumble over each other’s lines, leaving things looking under-rehearsed and uncomfortable. Hannah Seida’s animations serve as an attractive means to illustrate the missing detail from exposition and imagination sequences; unfortunately they’re rarely woven into the performance as more than a cover for an uneasy scene change.
It’s a shame that Aunty Ben doesn’t deliver the vivacity that I’m certain Reves alone can provide, because you can sense that if Super Paua were to ‘werk’ a little harder, maybe add a few more sequins, this story could sashay into the hearts and hopes of many.
Aunty Ben played as part of the SACRED season at the Chelsea Theatre. For tickets and tour information, please see the Super Paua website. Photo by Chelsea Theatre.