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Up in the Wardrobe – Broadway Theatre, Barking

Writer: Roberta Michel

Director: Dylan Keeling

Reviewer: Michael Gray

[Rating:2.5]

Well, it’s a far cry from The Dresser. No tatty provincial touring Shakespeare, but the hard-working wardrobe team at the Duchess in 1977, where the show is the iconic, seminal, but now largely forgotten Oh Calcutta. “You never know who you’re going to meet, up in the wardrobe,” muses Mina, Wardrobe Mistress, as the curtain falls. Under her stern maternal eye, three foreigners, drawn to Seventies London, on the run from their past, come and go.

Roberta Michel’s fifty minute sequence of scenes is based in part on her own experience, as a dancer and as a dresser. Stripping bare is a key metaphor. Eleanor [Zeynep Sandi], fleeing a divided Berlin, had auditioned for the show, but refused to appear naked, so signs on for wardrobe, despite not knowing how to iron a shirt. Mo [Steve Griffin], a plumply pretty blond from Rhodesia, grows a moustache as camouflage but loves to dress up as Dorothy and is convinced he was Marie Antoinette in a previous life. And Cal [Richard Igoe], from Little Rock, in his patched denim flares, joins the company as a dancer but agrees to a lavender marriage with Eleanor, giving her a Green Card and a passage to America.

But the chat and the soul-searching reveal that no-one here is what they seem. Unfair to spoil all the secrets, as this is a work in progress with considerable potential. Suffice it to say that in the closets lurk an oil-rich dynasty, the Prada-Meinhof terrorist tendency, Mau Mau insurgents, the French resistance and Bletchley Park, with an anachronistic nod to the martyrdom of Alan Turing. Most interesting of all perhaps, is mother-hen Mina herself, sympathetically played by Kathy Trevelyan, who recalls being a stooge to her beloved Harry, mentalist on the halls. Their mind-reading act, topped off with a white-tie-and-tails dance, surely cries out for a mirror-ball flashback moment. She too has her secrets, and can’t resist getting involved with the tangled lives of her protégés up in the wardrobe.

Dylan Keeling’s production, down in the Barking Broadway Studio, has an evocative setting, with ironing board, sewing machine, screen, and all the paraphernalia of costume running repair. Little sense, though, of frantic activity [think Wesker’s Kitchen], nor of the fragile camaraderie which binds these characters together. Music is well used – Sex Pistols, Lady Be Good, and Elvis, to whom there is a makeshift shrine upstage, and whose Love Me Tender is an ironic commentary on events.

Much of the action, appropriately, is off stage. Not just the show, which seems a bit of a burlesque in this reading, with glittery posing pouch, a fronded thong, for our cowboy dancer, but the wedding, and violent pursuits by skinheads and the police. One more potent symbol: Archie, the ventriloquist’s dummy. Like Eleanor, he lacks a voice of his own, but makes a useful confidant, and eventually departs in her luggage.

The accents are variable – the least convincing Southern drawl ever – and the pace a little slow, especially in this small space. And not all the writing is convincing. But the piece, with its layers of meaning and powerful central image, deserves to live on, maybe on radio, a fascinating footnote to Tynan’s revue, and the Seventies that spawned it.

Runs until 23rd February

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