When the movie version of this show featuring an outrageous and damaged genderqueer rock singer came out it defined the word cult, but it’s central theme of sexual identity was barely talked about nearly three decades ago.
Now this joyous revival of the Broadway hit is very much of its time as society is embroiled in a superheated debate about trans rights, and whether we should put ourselves in boxes.
Hedwig is a Berlin boy on the wrong side of the wall who is the victim of a botched sex change operation – hence the angry inch – but fights back to become a rock singer before being ripped off by another artist who goes onto mega success.
In Jamie Fletcher’s intelligent reimaging a bitter Hedwig was marooned in a seedy Yorkshire club, whilst his rival played nearby Roundhay Park, which he could hear when angrily opening the fire door on Ben Stones’ ramshackle set. To give the work the rawness and the authenticity it needed Fletcher assembled a diverse cast, including trans and non-binary performers, led by drag veteran Divina De Campo, probably best known for being in RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.
De Campo saw the movie as a youngster and identifying with the character always wanted to play Hedwig. All well and good, and despite a strong supporting cast, this was essentially a one person show, so it’s handy De Campo’s a seasoned stage performer with a four octave range capable of switching from Stephen Trask’s big rock numbers from raucous opener Tear Me Down to a beautifully rendered ballad like Sweet Little Town.
All those years on the drag circuit meant De Campo brilliantly timed the filthy gags, but despite everything Hedwig is at heart a survivor, and De Campo in a series of over the top costumes by Stones had to dig really, really dig to find them. It was an utterly convincing performance, complete with a marvellous Marlene Dietrich accent, that switches from high camp to deep hurt often in a heartbeat. When the wig was finally torn off and De Campo stood alone shaven headed and near naked on the stage roaring out Midnight Radio it felt utterly authentic and cathartic.
On his musical theatre debut Elijah Ferreira was never overshadowed as Hedwig’s put upon husband Yitzhak as he found both humour and pathos in their toxic co-dependent relationship.
The other star of this show was the red-hot Angry Inch band under musical director Alex Beetschen, who stuck all the poses blasting out rock anthems clearly influenced by Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy and Lou Reed but were quite capable of taking it down when needed. Frances Bolley was a rock goddess of the highest order, Jess Williams gamely joined in the action on bass and Isis Dunthorne kept it really tight on the drum riser despite Hedwig’s regular visits to belt out another number.
It would have been easy for Fletcher to just turn John Cameron Mitchell’s way ahead of its time text into a polemic about an important topical subject. Instead, she subtly asked the audience questions about their own attitudes, while retaining Hedwig’s humanity that gave voice to the outsiders, misfits and the unheard, which is what theatre can and should do at its best.
Tonight, many in the audience would have felt heard and loved – maybe for the first time – and for the rest it should have made us reflect more deeply on what we think love and acceptance really is.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues in Leeds until 23rd April, https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/hedwig-and-the-angry-inch/ before moving across the Pennines to HOME in Manchester playing 27th April to 11th May, https://homemcr.org/production/hedwig-and-the-angry-inch/
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 6th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★