Boy in a Dress


The promise of a gripping biography lies at the core of every diva’s career, but never as dramatically as with queer divas. International performance artist La JohnJoseph stars in Boy in a Dress, a self-penned account spanning his troubled catholic childhood in 80s Liverpool and his clandestine, substance-abusing formative years in New York. Culled from three previous solo memoir shows, the off-West-End musical exudes unmistakable attitude and poise, but tells a predictable story with drab spectacle.

Alternating monologue with song, what La JohnJoseph assembles onstage is a fragmented coming-of-age collage of his misfortunes, which soon grows tedious and weary. His sardonic smug tone has no effect other than eulogising his suffering, as does his song repertoire: numbers like Broken Social Scene’s Lover’s Spit, Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat and Nirvana’s All Apologies, all delivered in limp baroque poses, only bring the material to new heights of moaning.

What the boy in a dress has got to moan about is staples of cautionary-tale melodrama: drunken mother, absent father, schoolyard homophobia and other abusive relationships. Lingering on a litany of lows, the show barely scratches the surface of his highs, offering little contrast to create pathos. The author of this autobiography rose from poverty in Thatcher’s Britain to an international career in performance, publishing and academia, with the odd stint in modelling and prostitution. The turning points of his story? Getting caught at school giving someone a blowjob and being deported from America for lacking a visa.

Boy in a Dress is distant and unengaging in every sense. Its laboured structure relies on post-modern gimmicks like video projections, onstage costume changes and lip-synching to backing tracks, all inconsequential. La JohnJoseph’s sterilised singing reaches all the right notes, but lifelessly, sounding all the more tepid in conjunction with musical director Jordan Hunt’s minimal live keyboard accompaniment. Together with Hunt, actress Anna Lewenhaupt rounds up the cast, but contributes little other than passing vignettes and caricatures to provide a backdrop for the lead. Undramatic in text and staging, the show becomes a largely narrated storytelling experiment.

Late in the show, La JohnJoseph recalls coming home after one of his late-night escapades and chancing upon his mother as they both try to sneak in unnoticed. The moving kinship of the anecdote has all the poignancy that the piece lacks elsewhere. Boy in a Dresspurports to chart the makings of a diva through adversity. What it has to offer, though, remains too true to its title to fulfil that promise.

Boy in a Dress. Directed by Sarah Chew. Ovalhouse, London. 14 February-3 March, Tue-Fri 20:00, Sat 14:30 and 20:00. £7-18 (£7 concessions)