John Cameron and Stephen Trask’s big, ballsy, gender-bending musical detonates upon Greenside’s Royal Terrace stage with a blast that can be heard clear across Edinburgh.
If Hedwig is in the arena, it just doesn’t feel right. So here, in a small theatre, it feels authentic. This is just the sort of place Hedwig would play. It allows Jake Benson in the titular role to toy with his audience, at one point even climbing on them and over them.
Set at a gig for the eponymous Hedwig, Stephen Trask’s glam rock score is peppered with narrative telling us how little Hansel from East Berlin gets swept away by American sugar-daddy Luther, who insists a little piece of Hansel must remain in order for them to marry. The resulting botched sex change operation leaves Hansel – now Hedwig – with a mound of one-inch flesh between her legs: The Angry Inch.
Hedwig, divorced from Luther and living in a trailer park in Kansas, meets Tommy Speck, the eldest sibling of a child she is babysitting. Hedwig and Tommy form a relationship and write music together, but he abandons her when he learns she is transsexual. Tommy – now renamed Tommy Gnosis – goes on to international fame singing Hedwig’s songs, but leaving Hedwig playing dives and diners with his downtrodden husband, Yitzhak.
Hedwig is a mould-breaking musical that was never intended to play traditional proscenium arch theatres, despite the current Broadway run, and West End plans in the works. It’s a musical born of New York drag clubs that works better in intimate spaces. Hedwig is set in whatever crappy venue they can find next to Tommy Gnosis’ arena tour, and if Hedwig is in the arena, it just doesn’t feel right. So here, in a small theatre, it feels authentic. This is just the sort of place Hedwig would play. It allows Jake Benson in the titular role to toy with his audience, at one point even climbing on them and over them.
The gymnastics also applies to the script, which here are contemporised with references to selfies, Grindr and Disney’s Frozen. I welcome the ad-libbing with the audience as it reinforces the small-gig atmosphere, but it’s not perfect. Benson’s pacing can be laboured at times and the script additions don’t match the poetic language Hedwig employs in Cameron’s original. But let’s put this in context: the group – A Wicked Little Town – openly admit they are an amateur company, but this is far from an amateur performance.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a strong passionate heart, which Benson deftly taps into. There really aren’t any bad songs in the show, but it’s the last few numbers of this production that has the hairs on the back of your neck fully erect as the emotion builds to a pinnacle.