23 May 2013

Review: Unhappy Birthday

I'm late to the party but had an opportunity to get smeared with cake and declared the face of the British obesity epidemic yesterday evening as an member of the audience for Amy Lamé's show Unhappy Birthday. This is running for a little while yet, so there's still a chance to go and see it at the lovely Camden People's Theatre in London.

Unhappy Birthday takes the form of Amy's birthday party; there are party poppers and little conical hats for everyone, a tray of snacks, a big present and a seat reserved for the guest of honour: Morrissey. We hear stories of Amy growing up, and her progression from unhinged Morrissey superfan to even more unhinged Morrissey superfan. Things soon start to unravel and by the end of the show our hostess has, variously, threatened, cajoled, sanctified, smooched and fed us.

Some things worth remarking upon:

  • Unhappy Birthday is the latest product from the house of Amy Lamé and Scottee, who directed the show. If you liked Hamburger Queen, you'll love this. Little touches like sequins, jokes about performance art, shimmer curtains, dressing up, smeared lipstick are like hallmarks of this beautiful, collaborative, creative work-friendship and are a pleasure to witness.
  • It's not a play about fat, but fat is in there or, rather, morbid obesity. In a climate where academics are calling for policy to pressure media into producing positive images of fat people, Unhappy Birthday reminds me of the delights of mucking about in the gutter. As a person in the public eye, it's really amazing and brilliant to see Amy embrace the grotesque, the un-pretty, the demented, the 'ugly-fat'. She deconstructs her own celebrity, really goes there fearlessly and it's beautiful.
  • Bevin Branlandingham sometimes talks about being called Too Much. The Amy of the show is gleefully Too Much: big, in your face, wild eyes, out of control, running around, yelling "I've been on the TV!" This is the image that anyone who ever gets told they should be quiet, be polite and take up less space in the world should hold in their head.
  • The production design is gorgeous. You get a little zine as a programme, the lighting and projections are pretty, props are revealed from beautiful boxes, there's mess. It's minimalist and maximalist all at once.

Some people I know elsewhere have been raving about Samuel D. Hunter's play The Whale. But performance that's engaged with fat to a greater or lesser extent does not have to be limited to a skinny guy blobbing around a stage in a fatsuit, offering a mawkish rendering of what it is to be fat, in venues that are likely inaccessible to actual superfat people who might want to set folks straight. I see Unhappy Birthday within a scene that includes people like Glenn Marla and Hana Malia, the duo formerly known as Fat Femme Mafia, Emma Corbett-Ashby/Goldie Dartmouth, Rebel Cupcake's roster of performers, Shazzam, even Beth Ditto, who bring their lived understanding of queer fat to performance in diverse, dazzling ways. This is the stuff that makes you feel witnessed, validated, entertained and glad to be alive.

Ok, that's all, go and see it.

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