Mention the word "drag" and most people will automatically picture a man in a frock. But that's less than half the story, as The Girl I Left Behind Me beguilingly attests. Devised and compiled by Neil Bartlett and informed by the lovely pure voice and wittily knowing personality of the mezzo-soprano opera singer and cross-over artist Jessica Walker, this 80-minute piece is a drolly celebratory yet also piercingly poignant one-woman guide to a neglected chapter in showbiz and lesbian history.
A glamorous, boyish figure with her slickly cropped hair and her white tie and tails, Walker conjures up, through "sixteen-and-a-half songs", such now-forgotten spirits of music-hall "trouser-dom" as Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Ella Shields (1879-1952) and the American male impersonator Ella Wesner (1841-1917), who learned the tricks of the trade while acting as dresser to Annie Hindle (born 1847). James Holmes pounds the ivories with panache as Walker resurrects songs from the melodious repertoires of these women.
The careers tended to end in various shades of sadness. Needing money after a divorce, the elderly Ella Shields was reduced to working in holiday camps and died in one in Morecambe in 1952, after collapsing while singing her trademark funny-sad toff's ditty "Burlington Bertie from Bow" (beautifully rendered here by Walker). She was 73.
Annie Hindle eventually married her female dresser, using the name "Charles" at the ceremony, where the best man was a drag queen in mufti. But her fate illustrates the predicament of male impersonators. Suspicious that she was actually a man, her public turned on her (they wanted the authentically inauthentic) and she had to pick up what work she could (on Groucho Marx's TV show, for example) as a novelty act. In a dress. This show is not to be missed.
Touring to Sage, Gateshead, 3 June, and Pumphouse, Aldeburgh, 25 & 26 June