Le Gateau Chocolat: Black
Theatre Royal Stratford East (London)
It’s difficult to strike a balance between making comedy about mental illness, and making a piece that is honest, neither being bleak nor turning a person’s history into a punchline. Especially when there is also opera, and synchronised swimming. In Black, Le Gateau Chocolat walks this line without so much as a wobble.
Le Gateau Chocolat is well-known in cabaret, for his gorgeous baritone, his witty and clever one-man drag shows, and his extraordinary eyelashes and excellent outfits. He’s been featured as one of Time Out’s Top Ten Cabaret Superstars, he’s been in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre, he’s done shows all over the UK, in Australia and beyond.
Black opens with a bed in the middle of the stage, an orchestra partly concealed by a screen, a light square behind the bed, and Le Gateau Chocolat sitting on the bed, putting on a wig, getting ready. The bed is the focal point of the show and, as my friend said afterwards, is an excellent visual metaphor for the way that depression makes one’s world smaller. In this autobiographical piece, we follow Little Black’s journey from a happy little boy to a suicidal adult. His storytelling is matter-of-fact without being dismissive or trivialising, with an honest and moving account of the effects of shame. Moving from a beautiful piece of opera to Strange Fruit, from Whitney Houston to a song about working for NHS Direct, the mixture of music in the show is as gloriously eclectic as I have come to expect from Le Gateau Chocolat. A blend of voiceovers and direct speech, with simple and lovely animation projected onto the screen above the bed, take us into his past. We are told of Little Black’s dreams, to be an opera singer in a beautiful taffeta gown, to be a synchronised swimmer, and we see the dimming of his happiness and dreams because of others’ reactions to his weight, gender presentation and sexuality, and the escalation into abuse. Black tells of one person’s struggles, and the struggles that we share, that we can all understand.
The juxtaposition of cabaret – of music, dancing, laughter – with honest discussion of mental health is what makes Black so special. It left us with a lot to think about, a lot to discuss later, a lot to explore.
And, most importantly, it left us with hope, both for Little Black and for ourselves.
Running until Sat 8th April 2017 at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Book now.
Review © Alice Stringer 2017