Sandra Bernhard knows a thing or two about courting publicity, and with two back-to-back shows at the barn-like Edinburgh Playhouse to fill, and with three London shows to sell, her centre-fold debut in Playboy could not have been better timed. Giving Till It Hurts, the title of her new cabaret show, is as apt a description of her relationship with the press as Without You I'm Nothing, her last, was an explanation of her motives. She's given them everything: a bitchy bisexual who has been in bed and up to no good with Madonna; a movie bit-part player with a walk-on role in the lifestyles of the rich and famous; a kiss and yell artist who washes her dirty laundry in public and leaves her victims hanging out to dry.
All of which may or may not be true. 'My whole career is about creating false mythology,' she told the Scotsman before her Festival appearance. 'I like the idea of people thinking things about me that are completely untrue.' She exploits this confusion to brilliant effect in Giving Till It Hurts which, like its prequel, is the starring and apparently out of control vehicle for a cabaret singer who may or not be Sandra Bernhard.
It is the cabaret singer (bearing a staggering resemblance to Nina Simone) that totters drunkenly up to the microphone, glass in hand, to open the first of the show's big numbers. 'Fever' begins as a sexily reproduced cover and ends as a soundtrack to clips and out-takes from Bernhard's real and/or imagined life. No, she says, she didn't screw Madonna. Yes, she is bi. This sets the pattern for the night. Bernhard and her band, the Strap-ons, belt out a weird collection of songs, from funk to folk, which, cut with confessions and anecdotes, act as milestones on her path to stardom. One moment she's re-creating her audition for the revival of Funny Girl on Broadway, next she's on the set of Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis, then she's dining in Paris with vacuous supermodels. It is part Desert Island Discs, part You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, and very strange. At times you feel she is in Therapy, The Musical.
Littering her conversation with Warrens, Barbras and Lisas, she convincingly plays the part of a strung-out star teetering on the edge. It is hard to tell whether this is by accident or design, and her shambling, semi-detached style certainly covers a multitude of sins. Her meandering monologues frequently lose their way, and her famed wit is wasted on touristy observations about British sandwiches. But when she throws back her head, kicks out a leg, or curls her legendary lip, she is every inch the star going through the motions; if, as she has said, it really is her intention to call to mind Judy Garland being put through the showbiz hoop, then in these small details she succeeds admirably.
Much has been made of the shocking content of Bernhard's show, but, unless you count her demand that all the men in the audience should go home and sleep with their wives, it's about as explicit as a Madonna video ('Justify My Love', as it happens, is wickedly parodied). Having graduated from wannabe stripper (the finale to Without You I'm Nothing had her gyrating in stars-and- stripes G-string and nipple tassels) to wannabe Playboy Bunny, the most shocking aspect of Giving Till It Hurts is that Bernhard, bar a quick change on stage, keeps her clothes on. She bowed out to the Isley Brothers' 'Who's that Lady?', the answer to which may be: not quite a comedian, not quite a singer, not quite an actor and definitely not a lady. But a star, despite it all.Reuse content