Review: A Life in Three Acts, Soho Theatre

“You need to see the jewel in its setting”

A Life in Three Acts with Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill has returned to the Soho Theatre, but in a significantly different format to before, evidently in advance of taking the show over to New York. The three acts, previously performed separately, have now been condensed into one two hour show, where legendary drag queen Bourne recounts a series of stories and anecdotes from his highly eventful life.

And what a life he has led: we skim through his childhood in Hackney with an abusive father, his development as an actor, most notably at the Old Vic where he starred with Ian McKellen in Edward II, to the forefront of the fight for gay rights. It was here at the gay liberation meetings that he found himself, or rather found his new persona Bette, which was to shape the rest of his life both with a substitute family in a drag commune in Notting Hill commune and then onto his groundbreaking Bloolips cabaret company that took London and New York by storm.


Presented simply on a bare stage, with a screen behind onto which a series of photographs from Bourne’s life are projected, it is clear that this is a show in which one listens. The format of the show is a relaxed, informal interview, allowing Bourne to slip into the role of raconteur and enrapture the audience with his varied tales and this is where this is an evening of pure magic. He has such a gift of telling a story, and the moments when he breaks off, gazing wistfully into the audience and letting the import of his words sink in are truly, authentically moving. Likewise, when we are treated to a song towards the end of each half, Bessie Smith’s Drag Queen and Bloomfield & Bartlett’s Don’t Give Nothing Away, it is plain to see why Bourne has endured as a legendary performer, throwing off some great turns with a seemingly very casual ease.

Where I didn’t feel that the format worked was in the occasional interjections from Ravenhill as other characters who appear in the story. These interruptions are too few and far between, and underdeveloped when they do appear, to have any real benefit to the storytelling, and quite simply smack of directorial vanity, i.e. giving himself something to do. Given that the previous incarnation of the show was longer, I imagine these parts were satisfactorily filled out then, but in this condensed edit, they do not work. And there’s occasionally the inescapable feeling that it’s all a bit staged, and that even the shedding of a silent tear and the passing of a tissue are all part of a show which is repeated daily. 

In what is LGBT History month, A Life in Three Acts makes the most of its expressive, passionate and extremely charismatic subject to document a vital piece of queer history. Inspirational, moving and delivered with great wit and warmth throughout: though as a dramatic exercise, I suspect it is more successful as a piece of oral history than it is as a play.

Running time: 2 hours (with 10 minute interval)
Playtext cost: £3

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