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REVIEW: Ballet c de la b ‘Gardenia’ at Sadler’s Wells by Fiona Campbell

Alain Platel has never been one to shy away from intimate examinations of the human condition, and Gardenia, his newest choreographic offering, is no exception. Inspired by the film Yo soy asi, which documents the final days of an ailing transvestite club in Barcelona, the company incorporates its signature fusion of contemporary dance, spoken theatre and music. 

The curtain lifts to reveal ten separate figures- suited, poised and ravaged with age- standing on an empty stage. Gradually, a woman in a mulberry coloured suit emerges, shuffling towards the centre at a glacial pace, her face revealing deep lines and a grey complexion as she steps under the gaze of the spotlight. In a raspy, masculine voice she introduces herself as Vanessa Van Durme, and welcomes the audience to La Bodega Bohemia, the soon-to-be-extinct burlesque club notorious within the Catalan underworld. One by one, Van Durme introduces us to the eclectic and eccentric collection of artistes that have graced the clubs stage over the years from, “Lilly F**k me Silly” and “Gina del Rio”, to other sexually charged monikers earned during their countless years of service.

Momentum gathers midway through the production as the set is transformed into the clubs dressing room and the performers begin dragging up for the evening’s performance. The music similarly switches from instrumental ballads and monotone background chords to Alphaville's sythne-pop "Forever Young". Like children playing dressing up, only in reverse, they shed age with each new costume change and smear of lipstick. Through monologue and song, we learn about the person behind the drag; we meet a husband, a child, a former nurse and sex ops, each delivered with a tinge of melancholy and regret.

Often resembling an elaborate pastiche of the French art house tradition, the drawn out vignettes and extended silences can, at times, test the audience’s patience. However, Patel and his co-director Van Laecke, illuminates the double lives of their characters with such tenderness and precision that this is easily forgiven.

For the finale, the transvestite cabaret jolts into life, as the whole gang edge into formation for a joyful routine to Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. As the curtain falls, the contrast between the two realities, the glamorous woman by night and their shriveled, fading reality could not be starker, further illuminating the pathos of their plight as they say goodbye to their alter ego for the final time.

With its collection of ageing misfits and outcasts, Gardenia is a show that hymns physical difference and laments a lost era. Smutty jokes and sexual innuendo that pepper the script and punctuate the production are always warmly received by a sympathetic audience, but it is the loneliness, regret and disappointment of the central performers that linger.