From its underground conception in the drag bars of 90s New York where its name spread by word of mouth from lips as unlikely to lock as those of early admirers Barry Manilow and David Bowie, to its ill-starred incarnation in a film that opened then faded in the debris of 9/11; from slow-burning reappreciation through a second life on DVD to providing an early plot point in Sex Education, the cult of Hedwig has swollen in proportion across the decades, gathering disciples devoted to its singular subject.
The converted, of course, will require no convincing, but this joint production between Leeds Playhouse and Manchester’s HOME goes quite some way to furthering the Hedwig cause. Inescapably at its heart is Drag Race UK’s Divina De Campo, outstanding in the title role originated by play’s author, John Cameron Mitchell. Structured a little after the fashion of the now familiar An Evening With… format, in which showbiz stalwarts recount their former glories interspersed with choice selections from their songbooks, it requires De Campo to be both diva and raconteuse, Nico and Bet Lynch. Steely, wounded, charismatic, as withering in ad-lib as one might expect but with a range of vocal expressiveness that’s perhaps more surprising, De Campo could hardly be bettered.
It’s a star turn abetted in no small part by the cumulative details of an adaptation that transposes Hedwig’s low-rent gig to a plausibly down-at-heel pub venue in Rusholme, within painful earshot of a headline arena tour by former lover and one-time protegé, Tommy Gnosis. Its time period is suggested by the presence of obsolete technology in the shape of analogue televisions and an overhead projector, and there’s a beautifully understated moment – courtesy of sound designer Annie May Fletcher – in which the drama’s beginning is signalled, not by the opening of curtains, but by the pre-show new and no-wave playlist switching from the theatre speakers to the tinnier reproduction of an on-stage radio cassette player.
For me, what weaknesses there are seem to lie in the raw materials. It’s particularly the case that the fault lies not with the singer, but the songs. Written by Stephen Trask, for the most part they give the impression of being rock as a second language – not pastiche, as such, but, for a musical whose themes are authenticity and love, curiously ersatz and loveless. Across the score, there’s only a couple of occasions when it rises to the greatness of a Bowie or Manilow. The best of these, Angry Inch, marries form to content; raw as a wound, genuinely thrilling in its self-scathing attack. It’s a shame that its companions lack its immediacy, although a similar paucity of killer hooks did The Rocky Horror Show (a comparable cult confection) little harm.
While what is effectively a monologue has much to delight in a filthy stream of double entendres worthy of Julian Clary in his Joan Collins Fan Club pomp, linked with evocative word pictures oddly reminiscent of Les Dawson’s autodidact erudition, it has the less happy effect of leaving little space for the other characters to develop, flattening them rather in the face of Hedwig’s complexity. In the role of Yitzhak, Elijah Ferreira does all he can to add flesh to the bones of a part that seems underwritten.
Such carping seems rather churlish, however, in the face of the spontaneous ovation with which the audience acknowledges the best of director Jamie Fletcher’s rich reinterpretation. Now, after all these years, it might at last be the time for Hedwig to take their place in the light. Certainly, like the more traditional music its trajectory partly suggests, in De Campo’s case a star is born.
Photos by The Other Richard
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is at HOME in Manchester until May 11, 2022. For more information, click here.