This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
With his one-man show, I Am Not Myself These Days, Tom Stuart turns over the glossy, glamourous stone of an amateur drag-queen’s life to reveal the drug-fuelled, promiscuous creepy-crawlies underneath. Based on Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s best-selling autobiography following his experiences in 1990s New York, it is a powerful show, heartbreakingly sad and stomach-churningly harrowing in equal measure, with a good dollop of humour dropped into the mix as well.
Set on a small square stage, illuminated variously and creatively by coloured spots and bright neon strips, Stuart’s performance is a writhing, shaking, shimmering chaos of high-heels, glitter and running mascara. Clad for the most part in a tight pink sequined dress with two miniature goldfish-bowls for breasts, wearing a long blonde wig and tripping around the stage in long heels, Stuart appears in the guise of Aqua, Kilmer-Purcell’s drag-queen persona. Lounging on stools, dancing violently centre-stage, collapsing to the floor, Stuart tells the story of Kilmer-Purcell’s relationship with Jack, a high-class male prostitute with a crack cocaine addiction.
It is an ugly, uncomfortable story; from relatively innocent beginnings performing drag in various New York clubs, Aqua’s story nosedives down an ever-darkening rabbit hole: homophobic muggings, coke-fuelled orgies on the living room floor, and an increasing tendency to alcoholism – “absolutely no-one tells me not to drink too much.” Shocking, yet horribly predictable nonetheless, this is a story to which anyone can guess the ending.
Stuart’s writing manages to evoke the ugliness of Kilmer-Purcell’s story skilfully, but retains a sharp humour throughout that becomes an essential respite as the overdoses, k-holes, and blackouts come thicker and faster. Vivid descriptions of the story’s more shocking moments and of the constant physical pain of dressing up as a drag queen – blistered heels, compressed stomach, aching shoulders – are enormously effective. They irritate an itch that the audience cannot scratch; a fear for Aqua that cannot be assuaged from outside.
At its heart, this is not a story about drugs and abuse, no matter how prevalent they are, but of a young man struggling to come to terms with his own identity in the hustle and bustle of New York. The brief, fleeting moments of calm when she feels content – on the back of a speeding motorbike, asleep in bed with Jack, losing herself on the dancefloor – are enchanting, glorious in their lack of inhibitions.
At seventy-five minutes, I Am Not Myself These Days is perhaps a shade too long, its emphasis on the more explicit moments are perhaps a little drawn-out, and lose some of their effect as a result. But in truth, this only slightly detracts from what is otherwise a powerful, well-written and commendably acted piece.