Part of the point of contemporary theatre, I've always thought, is to point up complexity and banish the obvious, and in this, Belgium's Alain Platel has form.
In 2004, his show Wolf, elaborated with his company Les Ballets C de la B, examined the lowlife inhabiting an ordinary shopping street in the course of one day, accompanied by live Mozart arias and a cast of 14 dogs. Touching, troubling, and hilarious by turns, it stirred sympathies you didn't know you had.
Platel was clearly aiming for a similar level of insight with his latest piece, Gardenia. Its cast of retired gents in their sixties and seventies all enjoy dressing as women, and have done for most of their adult lives. One or two have had the op and in their resumés mention a husband. The lead character, the elegantly built Vanessa Van Durme, has enjoyed a decade or more as a well-known actress and television presenter.
Inspired by a documentary about the closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona, Platel and his co-director Frank van Laecke present these variously paunched and crumpled specimens as their present selves, caught between a rock and a hard place in their struggle to maintain a presence in regular society, yet plagued with longing for happier, lipsticked days when their own amateur cabaret impersonations of Liza Minelli or Marlene Dietrich looked less absurd and desperate.
In a conceit that grates from its opening moments, Van Durme welcomes the audience to the fictional Gardenia cabaret's last ever show, explaining that it's closing because the performers are being put out to grass, and holding a minute's silence for "those of us who are no longer with us", not the least confused tautology of the evening.
The patter is lewd and the jokes unrepeatable as Van Durme introduces her colleagues, who at first are shufflingly disconsolate in their two-piece business suits, but cheer up as they strip to reveal flowery dresses and later don full fig, complete with diamante sheaths and big hair. There's much conspicuous shoe-changing in the course of a long 110 minutes, and rummaging for make-up items around a table. No doubt this is what these game old guys get up to of an evening, but it's hardly riveting.
Things improve only slightly when the focus shifts to a gorgeous young sexpot in tiny trunks who wriggles and leaps in ironic ballet mode to a song by Charles Aznavour. Yet when he subsides into a tearful monologue about his own sexual doubts, the others are too wrapped up in their own maudlin backstories to listen.
The taped musical content is woefully unenlightening, a string of hairdresser hits – bits of La traviata, "Forever Young" – topped off with an all-cast baritone chorus of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The end result is a weary confirmation of everything you thought you ought not to believe about old queens. Oh well.
Jenny Gilbert sees Sylvie Guillem in a triptych of new commissions