Review: The Sissy’s Progress

On at Toynbee Studios London (until 18th March)
By Nando Messias
Nando Messias was attacked on the street behind the venue a number of years ago, THE SISSY’S PROGRESS is Nando’s blistering, witty, joyous and powerful l’esprit de l’escalier.
The venue seems like an old village hall or perhaps a school theatre but the way the company interacts with the space makes you feel like they’ve been doing this show here for years. Small moments like the conductor plodding over to pull the curtains in three jerky movements to make a clumsy scene change are brought together with bizarre and fantastic moments of slickness as in the tarantella like dance sequence with the whole company. It’s perhaps moments like these where there is a large almost elizabethan dance number, albeit set to the music of Cat Power that the archaic title reference is winked at.
Nando’s extreme and extravagant movement is counterbalanced by the other performers who come across as blandly intrusive man-boys in slightly ill-fitting tuxedos. The sequences seem to zoom in and out as lighting changes or curtains open to reveal a larger back stage area. Nando is always central but his reach widens to include the whole ensemble or tightens to bring the audience close into him. In the solo moments the performance is simplistic and yet it’s somehow cryptic in that it seems to express itself in echoes.
The grandest section of the piece is when Nando, like a diligent school teacher full of astringent care instructs the audience to follow him outside. We find ourselves on the street surrounding a brass band and Nando in a lilac ball gown. Despite the cold it’s an exciting moment to be part of an event which is drawing interest from onlookers and the odd ‘shut the fuck up!’ from local residents. As our parade of a hundred or so audience, led by Nando and the brass band, began to march down the street, I was initially thinking about an audience of middle class people performing a self celebrating march through an underprivileged and marginalised area. However when I thought about Nando’s original attack in this exact spot and the history of the area where there have been incidents of gangs specifically targeting queer people in the streets to frighten them out of their neighbourhood, I began to feel a strange sense of pride. There wasn’t any hint of vengeance or justification; we were a parade positively celebrating queerness with wit and aplomb. Some of the audience even began to dance and you could sense a real buoyancy and generous excitement running through the crowd.
I was genuinely moved by the experience of this show; so much so that it made me think most of what I see doesn’t move me in any real way. There’s so much that can excite or intrigue you in theatre and performance but it is genuinely shocking when something makes you feel.
© John Fitzpatrick 2016

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