Born to be a man

`The Slow Drag' explores the lie that was Billy Tipton's life.
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The Independent Culture
`I was a self-made man, which is what this country is all about, right?" declares the American jazz trumpeter Johnny Christmas in Carson Kreitzer's The Slow Drag. The idea of self-construction is carried, in his case, to drastic lengths, for Johnny - whose story was inspired by the real-life cross-dressing subterfuge of Fifties jazzman Billy Tipton - is biologically female.

The show, performed in a hot cellar with the audience sitting at tables drinking, takes the form of an imaginary concert - a posthumous one - as the trumpeter has, we learn, died of a stomach ulcer and his secret has been exposed by the coroner. At this strange out-of-time gathering, Nikki Slade's Johnny is joined by his buxom singer wife, June (Kim Criswell), and his best friend, Chester (Christopher Colquhoun), a black jazz musician who has also chosen to live a lie, avoiding racism by passing himself off as white. Working through a programme of standard songs that indirectly comment on their experiences, the three of them re-enact and take retrospective stock of their relationships.

Nikki Slade's Johnny, a besuited, slight, diminutive figure with slicked- down hair, feels the need to wear a huge, well-nigh permanent showman's grin. You can see the strain of keeping up this front; your own face starts to ache in compassion. The thinking here seems to be that Johnny, the woman terrified of being exposed as a non-man in the male-dominated night- club scene, simply takes to a revealing extreme the insecurity about masculinity felt by all Fifties American men.

The irony, though, is that Johnny, with his stiff, borrowed-from-movies male gestures, has to buy into the very sexism that has lumbered him with this lifelong charade. He's at pains to tell us that he didn't become a man to marry Ms Criswell's likeably blowsy and good-time June as he was already Johnny when he first heard her singing the lovely and, as it turns out, prophetic song "Blame It on My Youth": "If I cried a little bit / When first I heard the truth / Don't blame it on my heart, blame it on my youth". It also becomes evident that having a beautiful woman at his side is useful as a way of distracting attention from himself.

The ideology of the period continues to shape his perception of the problem. "I wasn't born a man, I was born a musician," he proclaims, which is a significant distance from ever saying, "I was born a woman and I was born a musician." For Johnny, it stands to reason that women belong as decoration up front, not in the body of the band.

The show, directed by Lisa Forrell, is principally enjoyable for Ms Criswell's sassy singing, comic cheek and adorably naughty grin. As drama, though, it's too bitty to take one deep enough into the material. Unlike the real- life Tipton case, where the wife was in ignorance (hoodwinked by surgical bandages and talk of an abdominal injury) and where the children were adopted, here June, although an avowed heterosexual, has kept Johnny's secret, and the children, raised by him, are the result of her getting pregnant by other men. Am I being naive to wonder what, apart from plenty of opportunities for torch songs, June derived from this most mysterious of marriages?

At the Freedom Theatre, London W1 to 15 Mar. Booking: 0171-734 0071