First published in The Times, Thursday August 20 2015
The Hollywood star Rita Hayworth once said: “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda [her most famous screen role] and woke up with me.” A similar crisis of identity plagued Dusty Springfield. The legendary Sixties singer, born Mary O’Brien, used to say that her trademark blonde bouffant and panda-black eyes were part of a disguise she wore to overcome stage fright.
The New York-based performance artist Diane Torr invokes Dusty in this moving, fragile exploration of everyday masquerade. The other protagonist is Diane’s older brother, Donald, brought to life through a selection of filmed footage and Torr’s vivid reminiscences. Beautiful, gay and with aspirations to be a dancer, Donald would regale Diane with his meticulous Dusty impersonations when they were growing up in Aberdeen in the early Sixties.
The siblings were destined to become professional performers, with Donald eventually joining the television dance troupe the Young Generation. Like most gay men of the era he was required to hide his sexuality in public. One of the many intriguing pieces of memorabilia shared by Torr is a copy of The Sun from 1972 with her brother posing on the cover with his “girlfriend”.
The deadpan Torr, herself a pioneering “drag king”, uses this highly personal story to make subtle, colourfully illustrated points about the costumes and masks we all wear in public. The footage, which includes a clip of Donald (who died of Aids-related causes in 1992) dancing alongside Rolf Harris, is fascinating, even if the show’s technical elements aren’t as seamless as might be desired.
Indeed, the 60-minute piece feels baggy in parts, with the content padded out with audience interaction that doesn’t quite catch fire, including one sequence in which Torr invites the audience to write notes to dead loved ones while she changes costume. The story is always compelling but a slicker presentation would result in a more satisfying tribute to both Donald and Dusty.
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