New Boy, Pleasance Theatre, Islington

When adapting any book for the stage, the original writer’s work, more often than not, gets diluted. Not so with New Boy. Director Russell Labey has adapted William Sutcliffe’s first novel faithfully, which unfortunately means that the novel’s flaws are magnified in front of an audience.

Sixth former Mark (Neil Henry) is drawn into a sense of awed fascination when new boy Barry, played by Leon Harris, arrives in school. As their friendship grows, the boys realise they have one big thing in common — their virginity. The main difference, though, is that every woman (and practically every man) wants to relieve Barry of this burden. The closest Mark can get, however, is a drunken fumble at a crass disco.

As Barry explores his newfound sexual prowess, he embarks on a dangerous affair with his French teacher, Mrs. Mumford. Once the affair is exposed (by the teacher herself in a brilliantly comedic and sensuous monologue from Heather Wright) the couple move in together, fuelling Mark’s jealousy – an emotion which goes into overdrive when Barry, close to the play’s conclusion, embarks on another affair even closer to home.

Throughout, Neil Henry’s Mark is a fabulous concoction of adolescent angst. Whilst his narrative monologues are occasionally gratingly overwritten, Henry’s delivery and acute sense of comic timing make the show. The audience is completely drawn in by him and, like his character, becomes tantalised by the best friend that he sees. Sadly, unlike the fictional Mark, we can see Barry/Leon Parris’ faults all too plainly: of the otherwise impressive cast of five, his is the weakest performance by far.

The relationship between these two young men is the driving force behind the book and the play. A shame, then, that it is not as fulfilling or convincing as it should be. This is due, in part, to inherent weaknesses in the source material, but responsibility lies also in Labey’s adaptation. In the play’s closing stages Mark is berated by his friends for being blind to the situation unfolding around him. However, the subtle clues in Sutcliffe’s book have been omitted, leaving the audience as much in the dark as Mark. While on the page we can recognise a young man whose introspection renders him blind and deserving of the name-calling he receives, on stage we are as confused as he is when new relationships surface out of nowhere.

Despite this criticism, the cast generally engages the audience well, with able support from Josh Neale and Clare Buckfield. In the main, the script varies from the witty to the hilarious, albeit with a convincing undercurrent of pathos. Quite why it was deemed necessary to shoehorn in so many late 80’s disco numbers to unsuccessfully create a sense of period remains a mystery. The character observations and the comments on schoolroom attitudes towards sex and homosexuality, surely, are as relevant in a truly contemporary setting, if not more so.

In short, Mr. and Mrs. Labey, your son Russell has produced a competent and not unenjoyable comic drama that fails to achieve the predicted grade. B-: could do better.

* Originally written for Gay.com UK (no longer online)

Kate Dimbleby: Finger Clickin’ Good

As a nation, we’ve come to expect impersonation of former singing stars to be accompanied by dry ice, sliding doors and Matthew Kelly. No matter how many Stars In Their Eyes she may have, though, Deirdre the housewife will, after her three-and-a-half minutes of fame, still be a housewife.

When Kate Dimbleby dons the peroxide wig to become Miss Peggy Lee, however, she assumes the mantle of star that deserves to stay with her.

Dimbleby relates the tale of the singer, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom, through a variety of songs from all eras of her long-running career. The monologues that intersperse the singing similarly jump about, from Norma’s discovery by jazz legend Benny Goodman, to the failure of her marriage to the alcohol-soaked David Barbour, back to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepmother.

Despite the potentially heavy material though, both Dimbleby’s charisma and writer Lucy Powell’s script keep the darker side of Miss Lee’s life, as the woman herself did, backstage, letting the voice, the presence and the wonderful songs speak for themselves.

In itself, this is another blessing: Dimbleby is quite obviously far more comfortable imitating Peggy Lee the singer rather than in spoken form.

The cabaret-style setting is an undoubted advantage, with the enforced intimacy of the King’s Head allowing Dimbleby to connect with her audience far more easily than a larger venue would permit. Even here though, the modern world creeps through. Somehow one imagines that _These Foolish Things_, _I’m a Woman_ and _He’s a Tramp_ deserve to be viewed through clouds of cigarette smoke and with the scent of bourbon mash in the air. A no-smoking policy and a hint of diners’ roast chicken don’t seem quite right.

After the interval, Dimbleby seems to drop the narrative monologues altogether, opting for a raucous and fully enjoyable romp through some of the highlights of her heroine’s back catalogue.

And it is here, where the reluctant actress fades away and the singer emerges, that you begin to care less and less whether or not you’re watching Kate Dimbleby or Peggy Lee. If the seats weren’t packed so tightly together, everyone would be dancing.

Fever has been dubbed a one-woman show, but that only gives credit to one quarter of the cast. The youthful backing trio of Julian Hinton on piano, Jonty Fisher on bass and an impossibly fresh-faced Ben Reynolds on drums play their entire set with great smiles on their faces: when the band is having this much fun you can’t help but join in.

One almost misses the fact that, come the leading lady’s first bow, she hasn’t even sung the title number. That little problem is not overlooked for long, and is definitely worth the wait: as Kate Dimbleby encourages the audience to provide the finger-clicking accompaniment, she launched into Fever with a sultriness that even Miss Lee, in her prime, could hardly manage.

With a sassiness and sense of humour that cannot fail to please, Dimbleby proves that she is indeed one hell of a woman – W-O-M-A-N…

* This article was originally written for Gay.com UK