“You want to interrogate me and put me in your blog?!”
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’m still waiting for a response to my offer to be Phil Willmott’s new BFF and so in a completely non-stalkerish way, off I went to the basement of the Trafalgar Studios to see his latest production, Dirty White Boy.
On the barest of stages, just some plastic chairs and a set of packing boxes accompany the actors, we follow the story of Clayton Littlewood’s 3 year tenure as the proprietor of a Soho clothes shop, Dirty White Boy on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street. Initially written as a myspace blog and then developing into a newspaper column and a book, Littlewood clearly has a great empathy and understanding of his Soho, and the writing is in places extremely funny, capturing the eccentricities and the history of the area and acknowledging the vast diversity of the characters that inhabit it.
To be frank, it is hard to shake the feeling that this is somewhat of a vanity project as Clayton Littlewood acts as the narrator of his own story and it does suffer from the fact that he is not an actor. He lacks the requisite polish, too many nervous chuckles and mouthing along of other peoples’ lines to make it a really effective narration. Where this show does succeed though is in David Benson’s amazing portrayal of the range of characters who frequent the shop and whose individual quirks and stories inspired the initial writing of the blog. Through a series of quick changes, he plays amongst others, both sides of an elderly gay couple, a bailiff and an American former Diana Ross impersonator whose awfully keen on rent boys. Where he is most outstanding though is in the moving testimony of Angie, a transitioning transsexual, capturing in the briefest of sketches, the vivacity and blunt honesty of a truly fascinating character. Benson’s efforts are far and away the strongest element of this production and he is never less than superb, no matter which hat (literally!) he is wearing.
It is therefore hard to not be cynical about the incorporation of a pretty young thing who wanders around singing shirtless, and all the more so with Alexis Gerred’s sometimes shaky performance. Every so often he pops up to sing a song with a tenuous connection to the story (‘Downtown’, ‘Rent’, ‘One Way or Another’ are some examples) which are delivered nicely enough in a bland pop manner, but in the tiny space of the Trafalgar Studio 2, there’s no escaping from his straining to hit the top notes. And I wasn’t a fan of his occasional attempts to interpret the lyrics, growling the key line in ‘Rent’ repeatedly became very wearing, very quickly. He also wore exceedingly shiny shoes which were quite distracting. The songs felt like an unnecessary addition, padding out the material and distracting from the main narrative.
Dirty White Boy is not the worst thing on stage in London by far, indeed it can hold its own in the raft of gay-themed offerings currently open. I do however worry that its niche appeal even within the gay market, it really is that Soho-specific, and the overambitious ticket prices, the basic set and lack of polished performances (Benson aside of course) simply do not justify them, will result in it getting lost in such an overcrowded market.