Thursday 21 July 2022

Review: Make-Up (NoLogoProductions, GM Fringe)

Sunday 17 July 2022
King’s Arms Theatre, Salford

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Sunday 17th July, I was at the King’s Arms Theatre to review Make-Up, a play by NoLogoProductions. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 22nd July, but here’s the blog version…

Make-Up (written and directed by Andy Moseley) opens on an empty stage, with a dressing table and clothes rail suggesting that we are actually backstage. We’re waiting for the performer – Lady Christina (played by Moj Taylor) – to sing her final number on-stage. Taylor appears as Lady Christina in sequinned dress, black curly wig and heavy, stylized make-up and belts out one last number (‘Hey Big Spender’, of course), before going into the dressing room.

This might sound a little confusing – what’s ‘backstage’ and what’s ‘on-stage’ here? But the effect was quite an interesting one. The ‘backstage’ area was in the centre of the stage at the King’s Arms. When Taylor entered to perform as Lady Christina, he stood to the side of the stage and addressed us (the audience in the King’s Arms, that is) as though we were Lady Christina’s audience in a Wolverhampton club. Taylor then exited behind a curtain, before immediately reappearing and addressing us (the audience in the King’s Arms) as though we were a different audience, the ones who got to look behind the curtain and see Lady Christina’s reaction to those who had bought a ticket to watch her show. Although this all happened very quickly, and with a very light touch, this opening switch of perspective really sets up the rest of the show, and encourages a particular mode of engagement with the character – we could easily be an audience who have paid to watch a drag act, but for tonight we’re allowed to look behind that curtain.

What begins as a few acerbic (and very funny) swipes at Lady Christina’s audience – with a couple of cheeky lines about Wolverhampton itself – quite quickly becomes a more reflective monologue on the experience of performing a drag act in such clubs for twenty years. There’s some commentary on the changes in audience, for instance, and of the expectations and attitudes of newer, younger performers. Lady Christina is frustrated – jaded, even – commenting that young wannabes on the scene don’t realize that ‘There’s no fast-track to fame. There’s no slow-track to fame either.’ Taylor performs this opening sequence with charisma and humour, but his mannerisms and delivery exude a poignant world-weariness that sets us up for what is to come.

As we may well have expected from the set dressing, Lady Christina begins to remove some of her accessories and costume to reveal the performer beneath. This is Chris, and it’s his birthday. He has four birthday cards to show for it, and he doesn’t seem particularly happy to have received them.

Taylor handles the transformation – or, perhaps, deconstruction – from Lady Christina to Chris with a finely tuned emotional range. Every gesture seems to shout out a tangled web of emotions beneath the surface. The wig is removed and thrown to the floor, and Taylor pulls grips out of his hair with tangible annoyance (and not, it seems, only at the hairgrips). Make-up is removed angrily; hair is tousled with a sense of unease. Chris emerges from behind the costume and the monologue moves to addressing another set of concerns, the difficulties he feels as a performer, and as a gay man, who is no longer in – shall we say? – the first flush of youth.

The writing and performance throughout Make-Up are impressive, working together to create an absolutely real character, with all the messy complexities, contradictions and – yes – flaws that entails. But a moment comes when Chris looks into the mirror on his dressing table, and the whole focus of the play shifts. For me, this is when Make-Up really comes into its own.

The birthday cards Chris receives are for his forty-fourth birthday. Now, I appreciate I might be absolutely primed to identify with this, given that my forty-fourth birthday is literally a couple of weeks away, but I’d still argue that when that shift of focus comes, Moseley’s writing so beautifully captures something of the essence of being in your mid-forties that it almost transcends the specifics of Chris’s story.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler as such to say that when Chris looks into the mirror, he sees his father reflected back. So far, so you’re-in-your-forties-cliché. However, the monologue shifts then from Chris addressing the audience to Chris addressing his father, and to Chris saying twenty years’ worth of things he’s been unable to say to his father’s face.

Again, the emotional range here is notable. It is heart-breaking when Chris remembers how his youthful ambition to be a teacher was thwarted by the crushing realization of what Section 28 really meant. It is raw when Chris recalls his father’s reaction to discovering he was gay. And it’s utterly moving – painful, even – when Chris begins to recall his relationship with his mother after he became estranged from his father.

But the thing that really lifts Make-Up to the next level for me is the humanity of it all. As Chris goes over his formative experiences, there is a real sense that he has come – as, maybe, we all do in our forties – to see his father as a human being. A deeply flawed and perhaps unforgivable human being, but a human being nonetheless. Without actually quoting Larkin, Chris evokes the spirit of ‘This be the Verse’, as he reflects briefly on his father’s formative experiences. It’s not an excuse, as he’s quick to point out, but it goes some way towards an explanation. Taylor’s performance of this part of the monologue is nuanced, balancing a clear desire to understand with brittle anger at having had to deal with someone else’s problems.

Make-Up is a one-act, one-hour monologue, which is a fairly standard format for a Fringe play (I’d say it’s the most usual format I’ve seen at the Greater Manchester Fringe). NoLogoProductions really understand the potential of this format, and the overall ‘shape’ of Make-Up shows an assured ability to use the time and space effectively. The richness of Chris’s backstory is conjured with a deft touch, and the arc of self-awareness the character travels leads us to a satisfying conclusion (with a firm avoidance of sentimentality and just a hint of an unanswered question or two). It’s a confident piece of writing and direction, brought to life by a truly compelling performance from Taylor.

In case you haven’t guessed, Make-Up is a strong recommendation from me. Although it’s now finished its run at the Greater Manchester Fringe, I believe NoLogoProductions do have other performance dates lined up at other festivals. If you get the chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch. And I’ll certainly be looking out for future work from Moj Taylor, Andy Moseley and NoLogoProductions in the future.

Make-Up was on at the King’s Arms Theatre on 16th and 17th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

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