Birds of Paradise Theatre's latest production 'Crazy Jane' tells the story of Jane Avril, star of the Moulin Rouge who was immortalised in the iconic posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. Directed by Written by Nicola McCartney and directed by Garry Robson the show has recently toured Scotland. Review by Paul F. Cockburn
At first glance, Jane Avril is an unusual subject for a theatre company famous for putting disabled people and their stories centre stage. One of the iconic dancing stars of 1890s’ ‘Belle Époque’ Paris, Avril was also the muse and inspiration for the French post-impressionist painter and printmaker Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the subject of many of his most famous images.
Yet, as this haunting, if bizarre, cabaret-flavoured drama shows, Avril was a survivor; not just of an abusive childhood – her mother was a selfish, cruel high-class prostitiute – but also of the institutionalised care provided by psychological medicine, still just one step away from Bedlam.
We learn that Avril’s love of dancing – admittedly a strikingly unique and strangely alluring choreography within the somewhat sordid delights of the Moulin Rouge – had its origins in the ballet training used by pioneering doctor Jean-Martin Charcot to suppress the severe spasmodic twitching disorder which affected her as a teenager.
Nicola McCartney’s play is quite deliberately fluid, jumping back and forth along Avril’s life, comparing and contrasting different periods through the simple device of having Avril portrayed by both actor Pauline Knowles and dancer Rachel Drazek, who are invariably on stage simultaneously – Avril can appear simultaneously as little girl lost and self-assured mature adult. Knowles and Drazek’s performances are physical, full of movement and yet sufficiently controlled for real emotional impact.
This splitting of the main character helps underscores the central point of 'Crazy Jane': that Avril should be remembered as someone who took ownership of her ‘impairment’ and drew strength from it. This positive attitude is starkly contrasted against the increasing self-loathing of the alcoholic Toulouse-Lautrec, despairing not just about his physical impairments but how he’s never seen as an artist, but always ‘a crippled artist’.
Director Garry Robson is a great lover of old-style music hall, but it’s always with a modern twist – in this case, the rumbustious score from Glasgow-based hip-hop band Hector Bizerk, which accompany some superb projected visuals (including audio transcription) by Sergey Jakovsky.
The rest of the cast are up for the fun, not least George Drennan who effectively MCs the show when not taking on a range of other broadly-painted characters from a Mother Superior to the young medical student who takes a shine to the teenage Avril in his care. That the maturer Drennan makes a point of playing younger characters is balanced by having 20-something Buchan Lennon play, with honest intensity, the older Charcot and the dying Toulouse-Lautrec.
Experienced actor and BSL signer Caroline Parker, meantime, might not have many sympathetic characters to offer – as Avril’s mother, and jealous Moulin Rouge rival ‘The Glutton’ – but she gives great value without ever stealing the limelight.
The show’s not perfect; at-times too frenetic, it’s the quieter moments – such as Janice Parker’s emotive choreography – that linger longest in the memory, but this is undeniably a big show in every sense of the word.