Does gay culture have Alzheimer’s or rather, collective amnesia? Sure, for straight, non-artistic philistines Jonny Woo seems ground-breaking, but truthfully, he’s one rich link in a historically brilliant chain. ★★★★
The once-signature beard, teamed with trowelled-on make-up? Straight from the Cockettes, the 1960s, San Franciscan performance art troupe, via David Hoyle’s car-crash Liza Minelli make-over. Ditto the confrontational rants, identity politics and shot-gun conflation of trash and fine art – uh, hello, John Waters and Divine, anyone?
And let’s not forget gorgeous lifestyle peacocks Quentin Crisp and Colin Swift (don’t know them? Do a Google), the epitomes of waspishly debonair decadence. ‘I love watching ballet’, Crisp hissed, ‘You never know when the dancers will slip and break their necks’.
And something of that same, devilish relish instantly curdles easy, audience enjoyment tonight. Because, if ever a show demanded snarling contempt for punters, it’s this. See, Lou Reed – the ragingly gay, rock ‘n’ roll beast so timidly evoked tonight – wasn’t even borderline polite. Screw social graces – he brutally massacred finesse with the aplomb of a fresh, human turd served at a Buckingham Palace banquet. Sure, Woo serves up a live, Reed songbook and patter, but it’s a pale, disappointing Xerox of Warhol sleaze, venom and spunk, West End Wendies doing a Lou Reed-Lite karaoke.
Let’s get specific. The biggest, howlingly apparent problem is a skewed, dramatic spine, all Hunchback of Notre Dame excess but no pay-off. It’s the sin of pride. perhaps, or, less religiously, King Midas Syndrome, the belief that sexually diverse mind-sets turn everything they touch to pure gold.
Not here. Unshakeably sure of his own cachet, Woo simply assumes, limpet-like, that his blessed touch automatically annexes and glorifies all things queer in his own image. If only, if only, as Tennessee Williams should’ve said to Salvador Dali. Full points to Jonny for even trying, but I deeply missed Lou’s clinically insane, live-gig frazzled mania, nowhere evident tonight.
It’s unfair, perhaps, to compare Transformer to the utterly deranged, swamp-rock transvestism of The Christeene Machine, another Soho Theatre stand-out. But frankly, Jonny, bless his surely rock ‘n’ roll heart, just pussyfoots, and merely apes, but never memorably embraces, piss-stained leather pants dementia.
Still – as with the filthiest, most depraved sinner – there are points of brilliant redemption. Breaking London drag superstar Pretty Miss Cairo is an outstanding Candy Darling, even though that transsexual, Warhol luminary would rather cut her bashful, self-effacing dick off than get naked on stage. And better still is Fi McCluskey’s jaw-droppingly stunning Valerie Solanas, the militant feminist who shot Warhol nearly point-blank in ’68. Reciting still-incendiary verses from the SCUM manifesto – the Society for Cutting Up Men – McClusky gives every ounce of witchy, confrontational venom a sublime, poison perfection.
So should you see Transformer, and part with your hard-earned, precious shekels? Oh god, yes, even for just the memory of that glorious, unrepeatable era when the streets of early 70s Soho were awash with drugs, pansexuality and promise – a time, we hope, might soon come again.