Taking the suit out of the closet

A new play about Liberace is putting the king of kitsch back in the spotlight
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The Independent Culture

"I don't suppose you'd like to grab a thimble?" TK Light asks, while sewing the latest of what seem like 80 million sequins on to the costumes for his play Liberace's Suit. The product-ion's designer was on the point of going mad and blind when she pressed him into service, but then she should have known what she was getting into with a play about the pianist.

"I don't suppose you'd like to grab a thimble?" TK Light asks, while sewing the latest of what seem like 80 million sequins on to the costumes for his play Liberace's Suit. The product-ion's designer was on the point of going mad and blind when she pressed him into service, but then she should have known what she was getting into with a play about the pianist.

Light's immersion in his subject can be seen in the homunculi that have colonised his London home. Little Liberaces, clothed and posed to resemble Jesus or Count Dracula, stand on floors, chairs, and shelves, their creepiness accentuated by sharing the space with Light's other obsession. The Egyptian jackal-god after which he named his theatre company, Anubian Nights, is present in manifold representations, their ominous stares countering the Liberaces' cheery grins. There is also a long, low wooden box painted with images of the goddess Isis: "That's my coffin. It was made to measure."

It sounds like a joke to say that Light's play, Liberace's Suit, grew out of one called Liberace's Jacket, but such is the case. His original notion was to write a play about a boy whose life is changed when he acquires one of The Sequined One's cast-offs. (Light himself owns a Liberace original, of gold lamé, lace and jet.) Then he decided that a dramatisation of the famous libel suit against Bill Connor, the Daily Mirror's "Cassandra", had more going for it. "This is the first thing I've written that's commercial. Every other play of mine has jokes in Latin!"

Upon his arrival in London in September 1956, Liberace was described by Cassandra as a "deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love". As if this were not enough, he also said that the flamboyant pianist purveyed a "slag-heap of lilac-coloured hokum". At a time when homosexuality was not only career death but illegal, Liberace astounded those in the know by suing.

Light, whose play is "half- fact, half-imagination; half- polemic, half-entertainment," was rebuffed when he tried to speak to Liberace's defence witnesses, including the late Bob Monkhouse: "Everybody perjured themselves like mad." Light admires Liberace's stamina ("After every session at the Old Bailey, he'd go off to play two shows at the Finsbury Park Empire"), if not his dishonesty.

"Liberace is not a gay icon - despite his outrageousness, he appealed to middle-aged, working-class women, who saw him as a surrogate son." The Daily Mirror ended up paying out £8,000 damages for its "imputation of homosexuality" - which it demanded back from Liberace's estate after he died amid a plethora of tabloid confessions from the pianist's former boyfriends.

Even so, many of his fans remain steadfast. "Bobby Crush [the Seventies singer who plays Liberace] and I have had nasty letters from women who insist Liberace wasn't homosexual."

'Liberace's Suit', Jermyn St Theatre, London SW1 (020-7287 2875), 25 May-19 June

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