Thursday, March 16, 2017

Scottee: Bravado, Camden People's Theatre review – Blimey, Scottee, fucking hell

I first came across Scottee in Edinburgh 2010 I think. I wrote in this blog at the time that he was unquestionably a star, immensely likeable, frolicking about in outrageous outfits, compering a cabaret show with supreme camp confidence. Since then, I've kept a rough eye on him, from time to time, and it has turned out over the years that he's not only a star, but also an artist.

Now, stars are easier to take than artists, especially performance artists. Artists have all this challenging shit to get through, all this art to make, whereas stars just want the glare and the lights. More importantly, stars are focused on entertainment, because they need your satisfaction to keep their lights up, but artists are mediating their own needs of self-expression/self-indulgment. I haven't always really checked for everything Scottee has done in those intervening years, but he's always interesting and challenging and truthful and he's growing and developing all the time. So, when I saw his new show was on, I booked.

The ad warned that

This show is not for the weak hearted - it includes graphic accounts of violence, abuse, assault, sex and love. 

So, not yer standard drag miming queer cabaret type of thing then. Instead, an exploration of Scottee's surprisingly rough upbringing.

The stage was pretty bare, a couple of TVs on flight cases and some fluorescent bulbs that flickered on and off. The TVs played fuzzy VHS recordings of 90s era programmes – Gladiators, Strike it Lucky, Arsenal v Man U's 1999 semifinal – the sort of things, I guess the teenage Scottee was watching on video in his council flat in the Queens Crescent. 

Now, that's my manor. When I was born, my mum lived in a flat on Queens Crescent, though we swiftly moved up to Kentish Town; I went to primary school on the border of the sprawling estates. The two worst bullies in my class were both from the flats; the Crescent was infamous as a den of thugs, thieves and drug dealers. Many of the kids who lived there – even, or especially, my class bullies – were terrified of the bigger kids who lived there. 

It wasn't just the Crescent. My friend lived on the periphery of an estate up in Kentish Town and sometimes we'd fall under the purview of the local bully. Once, when he had us cornered, he told us he'd beat us up if we didn't knock on this Indian girl's door with our cocks hanging out and when she answered ... well, I can't remember the rest. Nothing came of it; I guess he lost interest. But for me, that incident crystallised the idea that the big, sprawling council estates were inward-looking nests of sexual shame and bullying.

Scottee's tales started with stories about his alcoholic family; his uncle bottling someone outside a pub, and his first, pathetic fight on the estate. But he went up a gear with stories about friends who turned on him, first humiliating him, later forcing him to 'perform a sex act', as the police have it. And then there was brutal tales of his drunk dad strangling him of a Friday night. The climax of the show came with a description of when he passed by two of his friends/abusers on his bike, years after moving away from the estate.

I was still fiddling with my phone as the show was starting, and missed exactly what words flashed up on the screens, asking for a volunteer to come up and do the performance. But that's what happened – a game bloke got up and read Scottee's testimony off a screen in front of him. For most of the show I wasn't really sure what I felt about this – I guess I wasn't supposed to. It was certainly a bold move from an artistic point of view – keeping the audience off balance, toying with their expectations. But it was hard not to feel ripped off at paying £12 for a show in which the star didn't show, was probably not even in the building. Was this art or some self-indulgence? Had Scottee risen to such an Arts Council-funded ivory tower he didn't even feel the need to turn up? 

The question nagged at me throughout, even after I'd accepted that we wouldn't catch sight of the great man himself. It added to the discomfort of the whole thing: the uncomfortable chair, too close to the bloke next to me; the uncomfortable side view I'd ended up with; the uncomfortable material. 

And when I left, my first word, as I hit the air of Hampstead Road was: "Nah". Nah, did he need to not be there; I didn't feel it needed the distancing that the clever ventriloquist manoeuvre provided. Because I thought I wasn't shocked by the tales. I wasn't surprised – that is what it was like. Not for me; I mean, I had my own problems, but nothing as bad as this, but that is what it was like for some of those I grew up with. I wondered if perhaps Scottee had been hanging around with too many middle-class Arts Council types, and lost his perspective.

But I was wrong. The full force of the show was yet to hit. As I stood there, watching the crowd leave, I fell into a kind of shock. It took me half an hour to move on, and then I went to a pub and took an hour to drink one pint. I don't think it was the tales, although they were in retrospect pretty shocking. In the end I decided it was the final section, where Scottee faced his mixed feelings – his rage, his hatred, his low self-esteem, but also his lust, his desire for his abusers, his desire for their love – that set me off. It was where he tied together the show's themes, bringing out thoughts about sexuality, masculinity, childhood, violence, abuse, shame, victimhood and survival.

I don't think I've been so affected by something for a long time. It left me deep in thought. I've barely been able to articulate much here of what it churned up in me. The irony was that as I left, they handed out flyers with phone numbers of people you could get support from, if the show had left you 'triggered', as they say. I took the flyer thinking I'd never need anything like that. But an hour later, I was beginning to wonder.

It was incredibly impressive and, in the way Scottee faced and embraced those mixed feelings, it was Рthat old clich̩ Рfantastically brave, even without his being in the building. In its power to truly affect me, to truly disrupt and upset me, to, yes indeed, trigger me Рthis was the real deal, proper fucking art.