Dirty White Boy • Clayton Littlewood
Dir: Phil Wilmott • Assistant Director: Katherine Hare
Trafalgar Studios, London • April 26 – May 22, 2010
As I press the button for the fourth floor in the lift at Jerwood Space I hear the voice of Patrick Stewart or, rather, Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise: “Doors closing. Make it so.” That is weird, I think to myself, and hope there is not a camera in there to capture the stupefied look on my face. “Fourth floor: holodeck,” Picard then announces. But he is not finished. As I step out I hear, “Phasers on stun”. This idiosyncratic start is all rather fitting as I am on my way to meet Clayton Littlewood to talk about the play Dirty White Boy. There is something about Clayton that draws out the weird and the wonderful. It is what makes Dirty White Boy so compelling.
It is the eve of the month-long run of Dirty White Boy at Trafalgar Studios and the third time I have interviewed Clayton. The play started out as a blog on MySpace, which then, because of its popularity, was published as a book. The book is about Clayton’s offbeat day-to-day life in the Soho shop Dirty White Boy. The first version of the play ran to packed houses for three nights in July 2009. The 2010 version has been expanded. As before, Clayton plays himself and David Benson the many characters that walk the Soho stage. The addition to the cast is twenty-year old Alexis Gerred, who was a runner-up in the 2010 ‘Eurovision: Your Country Needs You’.
It is typical that, now I am in Clayton World, I hear that the original director, Phil Wilmott, could not make it to rehearsals because he was stuck in New York due to the plume of volcanic ash that had disrupted transatlantic flights. In his place is Katherine Hare. It is with Kat, Clayton, David, and Jorge, Clayton’s partner (as well as the play’s stylist), that I head down to have lunch and talk about the production.
After the icebreakers, and when Alexis has joined us for our picnic under the April sun, I ask how Dirty White Boy 2010 is different. “What has been interesting is that last time when we worked with Phil,” Clayton begins, “he was really good when it came to going through the script structurally and telling me to change this, do that, and as soon as he said it I thought, ‘why didn’t I see that?’ It was so spot on. This is my first time working with another director and you realise how every director has their different take. In Kat’s approach she picks up on every nuance of where you’ve gone wrong. All these human emotions that Phil didn’t go into in as much detail.”
On the words “where you’ve gone wrong”, Kat begins to chuckle.
“The other thing is that we’ve added more scenes,” Clayton continues, and, looking at Alexis, adds in a slight whisper, “And obviously we’ve got someone very young and pretty.” Here he turns his to David and adds, “Because apparently we’re not.”
David raises his chin, and responds, “I still get … offers.” Alexis sits back watching, relaxed, and very much the embodiment of Clayton’s description.
“The producer pumped a lot of money into the play, and so instead of the three try-out nights we’re on for a month. I think there was a view that, because it’s Dirty White Boy, instead of just referencing Dirty White Boy the shop it would be good to reference dirty white boy as a character. By introducing this character it meshes the stories together, invoking the spirit of not just the shop but also that of Soho. And we’re introducing iconic songs that match the action.”
“There are also a few things that happened in the last year,” he continues, “quite emotional stories that I didn’t get to put in the first play. I thought that if I only get one more chance to do this play I wanted to include, say, Chico’s full story, because it was such a crucial thing that happened to us while we were there.” Clayton turns to David, and finishes, “I think it’s more complete now, wouldn’t you say David?”
“I think it’s more fully realised than before,” David begins, leaning in toward the voice-recorder on the table to ensure that his words are clearly heard. “Last year it was more what you could call a work-in-progress. It has far more in terms of …”Here he pauses, takes a deep breath, and on the out says, “layers, and …” Another deep breath is then followed by the word “nuance.” Then it is business as usual as he concludes, “And all the stuff you want that keeps an audience hooked and captivated.” The timing is magnificent.
David is very much an actor’s actor, I cannot help but think to myself as he is speaking. He is marvellously aware of how a phrase can communicate his meaning and the same time sound rather ‘luvvie’ to the average Joe. He plays up to this by lifting his chin and pronouncing these phrases in a knowing manner. I have seen David on stage twice before, once in his one-man play Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams, and again as Noel Coward in David Benson sings Noel Coward. He is a joy to watch and just right for the range of characters in Dirty White Boy.
“In the last few days with Kat what we’ve been really enjoying has been a new pair of eyes,” he continues. “It’s allowed us to see it in a new way that we are really going to be able to explore in performance with an audience. That’s of course where it really takes off. That’s when the really important character comes in, which is the audience, and you find out what you’re working with. There are new emotions that are being tapped. We were astonished at the audience’s reaction last year. They even stood up at the end. And not just to leave.”
“Alex is a fantastic addition to the cast. I thought he was just going to come on and sing songs and go off again but what Kat has been really working is weaving him into the texture of the piece.” The knowing air returns and David leans forward to talk to the voice-recorder, his conduit to the audience. “He’s never far from the stage, you’ll be glad to know readers.”
“He’s become more of an everyman character,” Kat adds. “He could be any man walking down Old Compton Street, and he is also has becomes Clayton’s muse. Hopefully he mirrors what the audience is. I only came in two days ago, but ninety-nine percent of it was already there. One element that has changed radically is that we have Alex, who is now very much part of the piece. My job has been integrating him.”
“I think this time round there is a pool of good talent,” Clayton adds. “David’s acting, Kat’s directing, Jorge’s styling, Alexis’s singing, and my writing.”
“And your performance,” David emphasises to Clay. “It’s charming and wonderful.”
At this point, Clayton turns to Alexis and asks, “What do you think?” Alexis nods and replies, “I think it’s great.”
“There you go,” Clay says to me, “there’s your quote.”
“What attracted me so much, especially after reading the book,” Alexis explains, “is that it’s about real people. It has such a range of emotions. It’s an incredibly funny show, but there are also dark storylines that you can relate to. I hope the songs will be the stitch between the material and will accentuate the mood.”
“I think the whole point is that even if you’ve never met people like this in your life it is about basic human emotions that can appeal to anyone in the audience,” Kat adds. “You may not recognise the type of person but what they’re experiencing you will know about.”
“It’s not a gay play,” Clayton insists at this point, which I think is exactly right. “It’s a social play,” Kat confirms “It’s a commentary on a certain time and a certain place.” Now we’ve really hit on something, and everyone becomes more animated as a result.
“The danger is,” David weighs in, “that it gets pigeon-holed so that people think ‘we can’t go and see that, it’s not for us’.”
Clayton and I had talked about the book crossing over from the ghetto of the gay and lesbian booklist when last we spoke, and so I asked if its emotional range was the element that made it cross over as a play.
“That’s all down to PR, and how you pitch it,” Clayton responds.
“It’s a shame that it has to be thought of as a crossover,” Kat adds, and here we really get into the meat of it. “It’s a shame that all theatre can’t be accessible to whomever chooses to go. But that’s living in an ideal world. We’re not in that ideal world unfortunately. How do you make the crossover? It’s word of mouth. If two people come to see it who don’t think it’s going to appeal to them, realise it does and tell ten of their friends, then you’re on to a winner.”
“Our performance will prove that it is not traditionally gay theatre,” Alexis comments, “and that it speaks to a range of people from all walks of life.”
“The way forward for human beings is to see how similar we all are,” David observes. “All cultures and societies are controlled in a way by the differences between us, and this pushes you toward being tribal, when in fact we are so much more similar than we are different. As Samuel Johnson said, ‘We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure’.” Precisely.
“The characters in the play are all people who are normally pushed to the edge of society, and people don’t normally dwell on,” Clayton goes on to explain. “Old queens, trannies, hookers, ex-drag queens dying of cancer.”
“They’re not normally people who’d be in your circle of friends,” Kat comments. Jorge bursts out laughing and says, “They’re in our circle of friends”.
“We were doing an interview in a coffee shop and Angie was there,” Clayton recounts. Angie, who is a post-op transsexual, is featured heavily in the play. “Then Alexis arrived and within two minutes she was saying, ‘How about you come back to mine and sit on my face’.”
“In that hour,” Alexis laughs, “I probably saw her boobs more than I’ve seen my girlfriend’s!”
“And they spring out, don’t they?” David notes. “Boing! There they are. Perfect.”
“The thing is that you think these are larger than life characters but they’re real,” Kat says, bringing it back to the subject at hand. “They live their lives in this way. It’s amazing how theatrical real life is. In many ways I’ve had to say take the theatrics out because no one is going to believe that it is real.”
“That’s the thing about being in Soho, it seems to attract all those eccentrics,” Clayton responds. “I was very fortunate because they just walked in the door.”
“I think you’re a magnet for them, actually,” I say, laughing. “Remember at our first interview when Pam the Fag Lady walked in just as we sat down?” Pam is a Soho institution, and pops up all throughout the book.
“She was there the other day when we having coffee,” David tells. “And Rupert Everett was two tables away. You just go into Soho and you’re on this amazing stage with all these characters. Remember that time we first went out and had a coffee after you contacted me on MySpace?” David says to Clay. He leans in toward the recorder again and raises his chin. “Remember MySpace, readers? How our ancestors lived.” He then settles back into his chair. “We were talking away and I said that what is really hard about my work is that I have to write for myself.”
Clay nods and smiles. “And a little light bulb went off above my head.”
“I said it would be wonderful if you could write something and I could perform it. Initially this was going to be a one-man show and now it has turned into what it is.”
It is time to return to the work at hand, and Clay invites me up to watch the rehearsal for a while. It is a genuine treat, and over an hour has passed before I can tear myself away. From shop to blog, from book to play, the story of Dirty White Boy is a fascinating one. “You do not educate a man by telling him what he knew not, but by making him what he was not,” John Ruskin wrote in Munera Pulveris. That is in essence what we had been talking about on that glorious April afternoon, and it is Clay’s genuine gift as a storyteller I think to myself as I leave. I step into the lift, and Captain Picard says, “Door Closing. Lift going down. Warp 5.” I smile to myself because there is something that feels so right about that.