Wednesday 29 January 2020

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show - Theatre Review

What: Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show
When: 27 January - 8 February 2020
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Kieran Carroll
Performed by: Caroline Ferguson
Design by: Tracy Hogan
Caroline Ferguson
Long before Lady Gaga shot to fashion fame with the help of her Haus of Gaga, Australia had Jeanne Little doing it all on her own, and long before Gaga wore the meat dress, Little was wearing the Toast Dress and showing off her Bangers and Mash millinery. The true monarch of cut-price couture and the high queen of outrageous fashion, the life and times of this all Australian icon has been brought to the stage at The Butterfly Club by writer Kieran Carroll and actor Caroline Ferguson in Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show.

Jeanne Little is the kind of celebrity once encountered is never to be forgotten. There are a lot of try hards, but what made Little so amazing is she was the real deal. If you ever heard her talk you could never forget her voice - with those overly elongated sounds and that deep strine and, of course, her catchphrase "Ooh Aah, dahling!" Unlike many wannabes though, this was just Little speaking the way she always spoke.

And then there was her amazing fashion. Again, this was real. She was a designer and seamstress and made all those incredible outfits she is so famous for herself. Between the clothes and the voice Little packed an entertainment punch. As the London Evening News wrote after her appearance on Parkinson, 'What a woman! With her in the house you wouldn't want a TV.'

Little's rise to fame was accidental. She was running a boutique and had made her own maternity clothes. A guest pulled out of The Mike Walsh show with no notice and after a quick bit of research by the producers, Little was called in on the spot. She was so amazing they gave her a permanent segment and thus the fairytale begins.

Little took to TV like a duck to water, but the show had little to no budget for this segment so Little became a genius at creating haute couture items out of everyday materials. She is known for her amazing gowns made out of rubbish bags and other plastics and her edible hat range for example.

She was deeply connected to the Sydney gay scene through her husband Barry, and I am sure her popularity there was also to do with her amazing drag queen style. Who says women can't be drag queens?!

One of the nice touches in this show is the presence of a lovingly made replica of an iconic orange plastic gown (pictured above) created by Hogan. I wasn't as convinced by the rest of the costumes but did give a little cheer and nudge to my plus one when the Sydney Opera House collar came out. Who can forget her amazing collars? I also spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the feather arm bands and wondering if I could make something like that for myself...

Ferguson is very credible as Little. I think there were some nerves in this performance and my one piece of advice is to go hard. You cannot overplay Jeanne Little, you can only underplay her and this did happen a bit in the show. Carroll (writer/director) needs to give Ferguson permission to laugh harder, elongate every second vowel and just have fun. This was the magic of Jeanne Little. Every moment of her public existence was a celebration of the energy of life. This show needs to embrace that energy just as Little did.

The script is fun, and captures all of the key moments we remember of Little's life. Her highs and some of her lows. As much fun as Little had, there were and are also some challenges. The hardest hit of all is the Alzheimer's she developed in 2009.

Her daughter Katie has written a book - memoir - about her mother's life. Catch A Falling Star is mentioned in the show and in one of the many touching moments Ferguson tells us about Little's relationship with her daughter and her husband. It is worth noting Little is still alive, but for her daughter there are two women - the Jeanne Little we all remember who is gone, and the woman who is here now but doesn't remember anything.

In the script Carroll uses the onset of Alzheimer's as the frame for the show, and it is there right from the very start. I think this is a bit of a mistake because I don't know how many people are actually aware of this condition. I know I just assumed she had died.

The way it is currently handled it comes across more as though Ferguson can't remember her lines - at least until we are able to work out it is a dramatic device being used. I think the show would be stronger if the conditioned developed as the show goes on rather than bringing it in right from the start. I think it would be more impactful and heartrending for us to experience it the way the family had to.

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show covers all the big moments and reminds us she was a star in her own right once her performing wheels got going. Not only being a TV personality in The Mike Walsh Show and Beauties and The Beast, Little toured one woman stage shows for more than a decade and in this show we get to imagine how amazing she would have been.

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show has some of the same problems as Carroll's other show touring this year, Newk! It hits all the Australian iconic catch phrases and moment of glory, but still lacks a depth of insight into herself, her thinking, her emotional dynamic. It tells the story of Jeanne Little, but doesn't quite tell her story about herself and, perhaps because I am a woman, I kind of wanted some of that insight.

Having said that, this is a show which is going to go off like a bomb in RSL's and town halls around the country I reckon. There are a couple of songs, a privacy screen I was plotting to take home with me, and a creditable array of wigs and frou frou to laugh at and admire. Check out the show and have one more laugh with the incredible Jeanne Little.

3 Stars

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