As the audience take their seats in the intimate space of the Camden People’s Theatre, Hester Chillingworth is herself onstage- sitting leisurely, watching us enter and smiling at friends. Once the lights dim, she begins with an interior monologue about the decision making process behind this show itself. Dressed pedestrian, cracking jokes with ease into the mic, I wondered whether I had unwittingly walked into a comedy gig.
She tells us that she resolves to make a show about childhood and pops her favourite childhood song in a tape player while she goes to change into costume. The song must have been the predecessor to musical statues; it’s a playful tune abound with sudden pauses in the music and while it plays, Chillingworth yells from her dressing room “Coming!” and “Ready or not!”
When Shorty emerges, Chillingworth evolves into the dorky, childish and gender-fluid character that she labels as a “deconstructed drag child”. The epitome of a child that would not fit in at school; she adopts every awkward and unflattering habit imaginable over the 70 minute performance. Twisting and scrunching her face into grimaces; staring too long at audience members; panting and leaping with excitability; licking her lips; baring her teeth and re-adjusting her wig even more off-centre, the list is endless and Chillingworth’s attention to sustaining the extreme mannerisms of her character is impressive. Shorty is a geek that loves to rattle off useless knowledge such as which musical instrument belongs to each family. When he/she talks, Shorty becomes animated and absorbed in the story to the point of breathlessness.
Chillingworth’s self-reflexive introductory speech, which she delivers as herself- the artist and creator-, draws attention to the transparency of a character onstage. Thus, performed as it is with such ridiculous conviction – an adult as an overgrown child- it makes the show even more humorous.
The fabric of the show is a series of reconstructions of all insignificant and relatable memories from childhood: cassette tapes, a holding-your-breath competition and showing off the one and only song you can play on the recorder. My personal favourite is her homage to the packed lunch when Shorty crunches her way through a large bag of cucumber sticks dipped in “cott” cheese and takes the time to eat slowly and silently as a little audience tease.
The entire show is innuendo-rich, pointing to gender at every given opportunity. Shorty plays with a pair of bouncy balls- one big, one small (further gender awkwardness) – and labours over calling them “my balls”. A poem is read which consists of variations on the number 101 and Shorty discusses the difficulties of going to the toilet as a transgender person. She regularly rotates slowly on the spot, inviting the audience to view her body at 360°, as if she were asking ‘what is the significance of my body shape?’
Around all the fun and games, there is an inescapable sad undercurrent to the show that is highlighted by subtle shifts in tone. For example, when Shorty tells of the recurring difficulty of going to the toilet, Chillingworth exaggerates the facade of stupidity – struggling to pronounce words and breathing heavily – telling of the emotional distress that this actually causes. Moreover, I felt conscious that I was too comfortable with this character delivering a one-person show. Playing the ostracised and isolated character, it seems acceptable that people like this would talk to themselves for an hour.
A shift in tone finally comes just before the end of the show, which is necessary considering the sensitivity of the transgender topic, although the meaning and purpose of this section needs more clarity. The character begins to deconstruct: at some un-signalled stage, Chillingworth abandons the staged-voice, wets herself by pouring Capri-Sun down her shorts before stripping to reveal her taped-up breasts. She starts to move with increasing awkwardness until the image resembles someone in the early stages of Motor Neuron disease. The vulnerable, semi-naked body seems to allude to transgender genital surgery, but the attempt at sobriety feels ad hoc and too absurd to evoke empathy.
Overall, while Shorty is a hilarious, witty and entertaining show that is laced with allusion and deeper meaning, its sensitive ending needs some reconsidering.
Shorty played at the Camden People’s Theatre until September 22.
Photo: Ivan Denier