First, a declaration of interest. When I was programming the Gay Pride Cabaret Tent in the 80’s, I was always being pestered by one Alan Pillay to promote him; he was trying to make a career as a disco singer a la Sylvester, using his own material. He was sweaty, diva-ish and went down badly. But I still used to put him on, in as obscure a part of the programme as possible, just to get him off my back.
So I approached this show with a certain amount of trepidation. However, I’m delighted to report that at last Mr Pillay, now shortened to Al, has matured into a very fine actor and performer and has found the part he was destined to play. He plays a blinder.
On the surface this is a simple bio-play on a much-trodden path, albeit one given a savvy, sassy and fast-moving script by Richard Stirling. Little girl from the Valleys determines to make it big as a singer. Succeeds; marries man (Roger Moore) who becomes more successful than she is – A Star is Born in reverse. He screws around; there’s a reluctant divorce. Several comebacks, drink and disaster – houses catch fire, flood and are taken in bankruptcy. Our final sight of the now-vagrant Dot in her 80’s is of her watching her ex-husband in a Bond movie on telly and laughing at his toupee, still obsessed.
The difficulty with such shows is that they tell a self-regarding, unchallenged story with not much character development. The achievement here, in both Pillay’s performance and Stirling’s script, is to tell the story from the diva’s viewpoint in a way which makes it quite clear what a nightmare she was, while never entirely losing sympathy.
Joan Collins described Squires as ‘rubbed in glue and rolled in glitter’. Pillay’s make-up is mask-like, almost a clown face. She is bitchy about other performers, rude to fans, constantly litigious, self-pitying and self-serving. A bully and a drunk, who nevertheless plays her ‘little girl from the Valleys’ card with nauseating regularity. And then she wonders why the Delfonts and Grades won’t employ her, or the BBC play her records.
Despite her diva mannerisms, Squires never really had the talent to back the status up. As a singer she was irredeemably naff, with her exaggerated swooping long vowels, uncertain intonation and wide vibrato. Pillay captures this exactly, and, more remarkably, varies her degrees of badness according to the stages of her career – ingénue in Wales to declining years.
Broadway Baby reviewers are told not to award 5 stars unless there is something very special indeed about the show. There is one moment, right at the finale of the piece, which justifies the extra star. At the end of the encore medley of Squires’ best-known songs, Pillay launches into My Way, and ends it on a note somewhere between singing and screaming in agony - his face is contorted in a grotesque grimace of pain. It is like something out of a horror movie. In this moment all the ambiguities of the character, and what they cost, are encapsulated in an image which is spine-tingling, scary and unforgettable.