Donald Does Dusty

Donald Torr was, apparently, the best big brother any little girl could have, especially growing up on the outskirts of 1960s’ Aberdeen. Unlike the other slightly older children on their street, Donald didn’t simply ignore and endure the young Diane Torr; conspiratorially, he relished her presence, sensing a kindred spirit. He also roped her into becoming audience, judge and jury for his carefully studied impersonations of Britain’s Queen of Soul, Dusty Springfield. As the years progressed, the “outrageous” Donald instructed his hockey-playing younger sister on the correct way to walk in high heels and be “a sophisticated lady” like his idol. In return he became her confidante and, thanks to his “keen sense of the perverse”, arguably a better male role model than their alcoholic father.

There's a lack of context, not least the late 1960s decriminalisation of homosexual relationships in England and Wales, the shadow of which is surely a better explain for Donald's public presentation of himself as straight, rather than some delight in messing with people’s minds.

Donald enjoyed a mildly successful career as a singer and dancer, notably with television dance-troupe “The Young Generation” into the early 1970s. From the photographic evidence, he was certainly an attractive young man. Yet despite roles in West End shows including Anthony Newley’s Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, fame and fortune didn’t knock on Donald's dressing room door. Nevertheless, he did fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a millionaire – thanks to previously unrecognised talents as an antique dealer and property investor during the 1980s.

All of which is potentially quite interesting, if only from a historical context. Unfortunately, Donald’s not the person on stage; he died of “AIDS-related causes” in 1992, and we are even shown a glimpse of his funeral, or at least his coffin being carried in and out of the venue. It is left to Diane, who for more than 30 years has been a significant performer in New York’s downtown arts scene, to attempt to evoke his spirit. Apparently, they once considered doing a show together in which they played each other; unfortunately, circumstances mean we only get to see her play, celebrating him - and his idol, Dusty Springfield.

This, though, is the main problem with Donald Does Dusty; it’s an uneasy mix of live performance and archive footage, some general to the times, the rest more specific to the Torr family or Dusty Springfield: family photos, publicity shots and clips from BBC variety shows (now with added description of the downfall of host Rolf Harris). We're shown newspaper and magazine cuttings; Donald's old Boy Scouts blanket, badges sewn carefully by hand, is held like some sacred relic. But these are all just hints, evidence of a life long gone, and their impact is curiously weakened rather than strengthened by some pretentious physical theatre and Diane’s initial drag-king appearance. There's a lack of context, not least the late 1960s decriminalisation of homosexual relationships in England and Wales, the shadow of which is surely a better explain for Donald's public presentation of himself as straight, rather than some delight in messing with people’s minds.

All of this is uncomfortably interspaced by Diane miming to a few of Dusty’s 18 UK hit singles and a supposed interview with the star; it’s far from clear if she's performing as Dusty or performing as her brother performing as Dusty. Yet the least appealing aspects of this show are the erratic, uncomfortable attempts at audience interaction – the passing of high heeled shoes around the audience, the encouragement of us to write down messages to departed loved ones, the call to “dance like Dusty” at the rather lame conclusion – which drove several audience members away on the day of this review. As a performance piece, this show's pacing staggers like someone wearing heels for the first time, and that’s surely no way to celebrate the life of anyone.

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The Blurb

Growing up in Aberdeen in the 60s, my gay brother often impersonated Dusty Springfield. At the age of 11, I watched and awarded him points for how well he performed Dusty. During the early 70s Donald was a singer and dancer in the TV troupe, The Young Generation, and also appeared in West End shows. He later become a millionaire as a savvy antique dealer and owner of real estate. Sadly, Donald died of AIDS-related causes in 1992. Dusty died of breast cancer in 1999. Donald Does Dusty pays homage to them both.

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