Monday, 11 March 2013

Theatre review: Paper Dolls

I don't know if these reviews ever influence what people choose to go see, but sometimes surely the bare summary of a show is enough to decide for you: The true story of a group of Filipino drag queens with day-jobs as live-in carers for elderly Jewish men in Israel is either one you can't miss, or one you'd run a mile to avoid. For me it was the former as Indhu Rubasingham directs the premiere of Paper Dolls, Philip Himberg's play inspired by a documentary film by Tomer Heymann. Unable to express their sexuality in their native Philippines, five gay men move to Tel Aviv. Their work as carers means money to send to their families, and their evenings performing '80s classics brings out their glamorous side. But on top of their daily dramas is the threat of deportation: Their visas depend on them staying in work, with no time allowed to find a new one if they get fired or their charge dies.

In many ways, Paper Dolls does what it says on the tin. The drama of a culture clash that soon turns into family is complemented by the enthusiastic musical performances of its stars (Ron Domingo, Francis Jue, Angelo Paragoso, Jon Norman Schneider and Benjamin Wong,) choreographed by Alistair David. The only real flaw is that Rubasingham hasn't quite found a unifying tone to the disparate parts of Himberg's play.

But there is so much good stuff in all those disparate parts: The musical sequences (where the Paper Dolls segue from "Hava Nagila" to "Lady Marmalade," and rhyme "Moulin Rouge" with "Jews") are well performed and plenty of fun, and designer Richard Kent has given the show some strong visuals. Not just in the costumes, which include some clever dresses made of newspaper, giving the troupe their name; but also a revolving set of whitewashed Tel Aviv buildings and stairwells. The lives of the Dolls also make for interesting scenes, especially in the genuinely moving relationship between Sally (Jue) and Chaim (Harry Dickman,) the man she's looked after for seven years.

There's also plenty of opportunities for drama, from a scuzzy club promoter (Ilan Goodman) whose ideas for the group nearly tear them apart, to the bigger issues of bombs going off and the inevitable tangles with the heavy-handed immigration services. As in real life, the group are shadowed by a documentary film-maker, although if Tom Berish's Yossi is meant to be a reflection of Heymann it's not a very flattering one, as Yossi is not only a bit of a dick but not that good at his job.

There's strong support from Caroline Wildi as Chaim's daughter, and Jane Bertish as Yossi's mother, both warming to the unconventional carers after initial hostility, and on the other side of the melding of cultures, the Catholic Filipinos say Christian prayers before breaking into Yiddish expressions.

Himberg has come up with a lot of clever, fun ideas, and the emotional points of the story also work. And Rubasingham has brought together a strong cast (and Tom Oakley as the DJ who first introduces the Dolls is very cute.) The play's tonal differences do jar, but if you've always wanted to see five men in paper dresses sing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" backed by a chorus of singing Chasids, this is where you'll find them.

Paper Dolls by Philip Himberg, based on the film by Tomer Heymann, is booking until the 28th of April at the Tricycle Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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