Dame Nature - The Magnificent Bearded Lady

Tue 16th – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Serena Basra

at 20:53 on 17th Aug 2016

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A vibrant stage adorned with bright paraphernalia is unfortunately graced by an act almost devoid of colour. The essence of the show is interesting, as Tim Bell tackles modern gender stereotypes through his alternate persona of Dame Nature (‘The Magnificent Bearded Lady’). We are granted an insight into the backstage life of this theatrical performer as Bell explores destructive relationships, comedic tropes, and the interplay between appearance and acceptance.

Despite this rich array of subject matter, Bell fails to deliver anything particularly insightful or comedic. His audience interaction appears stilted and the show is littered with a sparse array of chuckles; many of which appear to be given not out of genuine amusement, but in a dutiful attempt to fill the awkward silences that linger after many a punchline. At one point Bell cries out: "There is no boredom quite like the boredom of your own act", and this, unfortunately, rings ever so true. The hour-long performance feels much, much longer than it truly is. It feels as if Bell possesses a heightened awareness of the rift he creates between himself and the audience; at points, such as when describing "the sisterhood", he yells out incessantly in a manner that becomes somewhat grating.

Admittedly there are a few gems scattered throughout the show. It is fair to say that Bell does appear skilled at physical theatre, whether it is a comic comb of his beard or the transformation of a carrier bag into a makeshift anorak. Perhaps if this skill had been employed to a greater extent, Bell’s performance would have been much stronger. There are also some genuinely moving moments as Dame Nature discusses the manipulative control her husband exercises over her. It is a dark moment in which love appears lost, and this shift in tone is a credit to Bell.

Bell possesses such a warm character that, immediately upon arrival, one is filled with the hope that he will be successful. However a weak script and false advertising (despite what is claimed on the show’s description, Phil Collins is mentioned but once) lets him down. If he reworks the show and plays to his strengths, his show has the potential to transform into a social commentary that is both thought-provoking and genuinely funny.

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Ben Ray

at 10:08 on 18th Aug 2016

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The main hinge of 'Dame Nature, the Magnificent Bearded Lady', is an exploration of the struggle of bearded women in the world of Victorian freak show circuses. This seems at first glance to be a fascinating topic for an Edinburgh show - however, this intense one-man interpretation simply does not live up to my expectations.

The premise, of the audience arriving for Q&A with Dame Nature backstage before her performance at Hannibal’s Travelling Circus, cleverly allows the actor, Tim Bell, to involve everyone in the room in a mix of chat-show like conversation and angry self-analysis. This is mixed in with zoned-out introspection, where Dame Nature angrily berates herself and others for her situation. It seems the kind of show that works on the page- however, in the theatre, it all seems slightly clunky and strained.

Dame Nature’s disconnected, paranoid, nervous disposition does a lot to put the audience on edge, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere of outbursts and long, protracted silences. I understand that this is all an effort to project the cramped, stifled lives of the bearded women of early circuses- however, this doesn’t stop the whole experience from being intensely awkward.

The problem is that the play simply seems to lack any other aspects of interest. The developing backstory of Dame Nature’s past, and her submissive relationship with her husband the circus owner, is not enough to keep the interest of the audience and fill up an entire hour of entertainment. The other themes offered in the write up, such as an obsession with Phil Collins, either make brief, sporadic appearances that make little sense, or seem completely irrelevant to the play’s storyline.

In fairness to Bell, the show's exploration of bearded women throughout history does make more sense once one has left the show and researched the history of the topic - however, I can’t help but think that it is the play's job to explain these themes to the audience. The strange mix of failed comedy and serious discussion of repressed women in entertainment jars together uncomfortably, and strange aspects such as the interpretative dance to Phil Collins and an overly obtuse ending only heighten this feeling of confusion.

This play is well acted, and has an interesting theme at its core- but is unfortunately couched in an obscure interpretation and frankly baffling presentation.

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