Dusty Won't Play

18 years after her death, “blue-eyed soul singer” Dusty Springfield remains many things to many people—not least a gay icon, thanks to her emotional fragility and memorable OTT “look”—the panda-eyed make-up, the big-wigs and flowing dresses—which has inspired generations of drag queens. Yet recognition—and indeed appreciation—of her gay fanbase notwithstanding, Dusty isn’t remembered for political activism. Dusty Doesn’t Play, however, reminds us that the singer—or rather London-born Mary Isobel Catherine (“with a ‘C’”) Bernadette O’Brien—did attempt something that, even if she saw it as just “small p” personal, proved to be “large P” Political.

Caulfield doesn’t in any way suggest that Dusty Springfield brought down Apartheid, but she at least recognises that Dusty made her own stand against it

Back in December 1964, Dusty and “her” band, The Echoes, began a tour of South Africa; they were deported early, having broken Apartheid law by performing to mixed race audiences. This all-too-brief, one-hour show by the late Annie Caulfield is essentially the story of the truncated tour, told at some indeterminate point afterwards and interspersed with half a dozen of Dusty’s songs—not all of which, it needs to be said, quite fit chronologically. This isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a musical—only one song (Dusty’s debut-solo album cover of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me) is used as a character moment. The other songs are largely just reminders of the few multi-racial concerts Dusty was able to play before the authorities put her under house arrest and prepared to expel her. (There’s no small irony, of course, that this show’s Glasgow audience is predominantly white and middle-aged.)

The main dramatic thread of Dusty Won’t Play comes from the increasingly threatening presence of the South African security personnel, which climaxes with a truly scary event which—to the credit of everyone involved—is only mildly undercut by the memory of the whole narrative being told as a flashback. If Frances Thorburn gets all the attention for her fulsome performance as Dusty, she’s nevertheless ably supported by Simon Donaldson and Kevin Lannon, who provide sterling support—both acoustically as the Echoes, and dramatically when playing other characters as required. Donaldson, in particular, is particularly impressive in how he can switch from open friendliness to clear menace simply through subtle changes of posture and the application of a pair of sunglasses.

Given the brief running time—and the decision to include so many of Dusty’s songs—it’s disappointing that Caulfield has too little time to discuss the consequences of the tour, both in South Africa and to Dusty’s career. In the end we’re only really left with the suggestion—which, at worst, verges on the trite—that, in the longer perspective of history, the cumulative power of small individual actions can be just as important as the big ones. Caulfield doesn’t in any way suggest that Dusty Springfield brought down Apartheid, but she at least recognises that Dusty made her own stand against it—and who knows how that might have changed things in the long run? 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

It’s 1964 and Dusty Springfield is at the height of her fame, scoring hits in the UK, US and around the world. On a tour of South Africa she refuses to play to segregated audiences and finds herself demonised and threatened by South Africa’s security police and jeered at back home in England for her naivety.

Shot through with Dusty’s timeless music, leavened with her earthy humour and straight talking, Dusty Won’t Play is a reminder of the tangled paranoia of apartheid and the true story of Dusty Springfield’s refusal to play segregated audiences in South Africa. She didn’t change the world but she did something.

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