Caitlin Beresford Ord embodies a forgotten Australian vaudeville star in Black Swan’s The Perfect Boy. Robert Reid checks it out
On stage is an upright piano, dimly lit sheet music laid out on its face. A hint of red curtain drapes the background. A figure in tails, starched white vest and bow tie – the stage hand who will pass props and costume into the shot – enters and collects a mic stand to take it out of frame.
Lights come up at a new angle as Effie enters, wearing a long parka. “Applause” and “Laughter” signs are prominent behind her and chunky Fresnel lights hang nearby. Back stage and front stage are collapsed into each other. She announces that she will introduce us to West Australia’s first international star: “Australia’s perfect” – briefest of pauses here for breath and significance – “boy”.
The Perfect Boy tells the story of Effie Fellows (Caitlin Beresford Ord), one Australia’s leading male impersonation vaudeville acts. It’s part of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Unsung Heroes, a festival of digital performance that celebrates the untold stories of five “extraordinary Western Australians”, which was originally planned for live production as a series of monologues. I’m once more reminded that, even in the depths and darknesses of 2020, our theatres can find ways to survive and persevere, to bring light to our lounge rooms. Unsung Heroes is well worth checking out.
Effie sings, clear and unaccompanied, as she walks to the piano, and then sits down and plays the jaunty music hall standard, Ted Waite’s I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana. Traditional vaudeville patter (puns – of the banana variety – and audience flattery) are interspersed with canned laughter and applause, which still feels uncomfortably fake to me. Maybe it’s years of being trained to hear when applause is genuine and when it’s played over the awkward silences of bad TV sitcoms.
Effie describes how to be, or more accurately how to perform being, a man. It’s all about the walk. It is assured, thumbs in waist band, pants hitched up around crotch, bouncy and forthright. It’s a walk that says I have places to be, she tells the crowd, thrusting her crotch and hocking up a fake spit.
I do tire of these kind of things being code for maleness. No doubt it’s intended as a critique of this kind of masculinity, but I wonder if the repetition is doing more harm than good. Once, when it was a counterpart to the ditsy blondes and limp-wristed queer stereotypes, this code was a bit subversive: it poked fun at the patriarchy, it gave a little power back to those of us who don’t identify with that particular idea of masculinity.
Maybe we might all imagine each other more complexly if we don’t keep leaning on reductive ciphers that already felt dated and awkward by the 1990s. There are still plenty of men who perform their identity this way, but I worry that this kind of critique does more to entrench stereotypes than dislodge them. You could argue that this section is attempting historical accuracy, that these are the kinds of jokes that Effie might have made as part of her act; but historical accuracy, as I’ve noted before, is often a refuge for the reactionary and only serves to reinforce old prejudices as traditions.
Finally we move into the biographical section of the story, starting with the date 1893, Effie’s birth and her name. We skip forward to a false moustache and a new name, Tommy, performing for her family with a drawn-on sash. Then another skip, to a 15-year-old called Buttons the Busboy, and a competition entry as a half man/half woman duet act. She dresses in a new costume, trousers and a flat cap, and introduces us to her new character, Master Freddie Manners, a polite and helpful young lad. he young Effie is relentlessly reinventing herself in front of us.
After a brief stint working as Freddie in a local girls’ school she jumps a ship in Fremantle that takes her to America, with dreams of Broadway and world fame. Effie’s adventure to America is cut short when she is intercepted by her parents and packed off to live with an uncle in Melbourne, but on the way she encounters a number of women on the way who fall under the spell of “Freddie”, until she makes her way to the stage as a convincing boy/girl act. And as with any rising star there’s plenty of sex, with men who love the girl-in-boy’s-clothing act, and, as she’s at pains to point out, women.
Effie’s life story takes her to a boxing match, strictly men-only in those days, where she meets a new lover and falls in love with the sweet science. She tells us that the thing about being a boy is that a boy must be cheeky but polite, strong but funny, ready to go to war but be a gentleman soldier. It’s a list of contradictions and paradoxes. Perhaps in those times, only a woman could really understand how the fraught experience of being male.
Digital theatre treads a fine line: it can be vital but it can also feel a bit empty, most of all when it is trying to do on camera what it would have done on stage. Something about the way The Perfect Boyis shot and edited in Joe Paradise Lui’s direction reminds me of live variety shows. Cuts to Effie sitting at the piano and looking into the camera as she sings feel more like the variety entertainment bits of the 1990s Bert Newton Morning Show, old time entertainment shaped to fit a broadcast form.
The arrival of World War One puts a damper on her career. Young men march off to the Somme leaving Effie stranded, dreaming of marching with them but knowing that passing as a man would be impossible in the close confines of the barracks and the trenches. Her fantasies of triumphant battles carry her into a spotlight, haloed and brandishing a wooden sword shouting Viva la revolución, which is a touch confusing but might be chalked up to laddish enthusiasm. This gives way to more sombre reflections on the reality of the war, of broken and wasted bodies facedown and rotting in the mud.
As she sings and whistles In Flanders Fields, the stage hand in the tux returns with the mic stand. I notice in passing that one of the digital cameras being used to record the performance is visible to the side of the frame: a Brechtian moment of reminding us that we’re watching a constructed thing? It seems too deliberate to be a mistake but, absent the rest of the verfremdungseffekts, what good is this, other than to interrupt what suspension of disbelief is possible?
Effie meets Pico, her future husband, the French clown with whom she does a double act in America. During a costume change off camera with clothes flung past the frame, she tells us “there comes a time in every woman’s life where she can no longer run around the world passing herself off as a teenage boy” and instead must become their destiny. For Effie, this is the gentleman character Bobby Folson, the Perfect Boy of the title: top hat, tails and white vest, star of the vaudeville.
Touring the world in the last gleaming of the vaudeville circuit, rubbing shoulders with internationally famous stars of the cinema, Effie reflects that she might have made it big in the films, if the films had wanted her. Sadly, there was no place for a “funny little thing like her,” and only vaudeville could find room and love for the girl dressed as a boy. It’s an all too familiar story, even now.
Ord does a wonderful job of embodying Effie. Her cheery disposition, coupled with her delightful singing voice and dab hand with the piano, carries the production. Gita Bezard’s writing shows a comprehensive knowledge of the life and career of Effie Fellows, which makes the work rich in detail even if it does sometimes overwhelm the storytelling. This might be a common problem for biographical works, especially in monologues, as they walk a fine line between drama and lecture.
Inevitably, biographies head towards dismal conclusions. We shed friends, we shed stories, we shed our lives. I’m reminded of something I think Neil Gaiman said in an interview once: if you extend the timeline out long enough, every story ends in tragedy. The puns start to pall as the sadnesses pile up, ringing increasingly hollow with no laugh track to bolster them.
Effie tells us she always likes to end her performances with a ballad, to show her soft and feminine side. She sings as she strips off her tails, putting the long beige parka back on as the canned applause returns. The show finishes with a reprise of I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana, performed in a spotlight as the world around her fades, and she takes her bows in silence.
The Perfect Boy, written by Gita Bezard, performed by Caitlin Beresford-Ord and directed by Joe Paradise Lui. Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company as part of the Unsung Heroes digital season. Online until August 9