Hedwig and the Angry Inch review – Divina De Campo brings drag queen swagger to grunge musical | Stage


John Cameron Mitchell’s grunge musical is the strangest of shows. It combines the kind of high-camp monologue you’d expect at a cabaret club – all knowing narcissism and arch innuendo – with a set of authentically scuzzy rock songs that recall the sounds of a 90s basement dive. Neither has much to do with the other. Dating from 1998, the show prefigures the gig-theatre wave of the last decade and yet exists in its own self-referential universe, too sketchy for narrative engagement, too meandering for emotional impact.

In 2022, some aspects seem stranger still. Maybe we can accept Hedwig’s origins in communist East Berlin, but the jokes about Manhattan districts and US middle-of-the-road bands are from another place and time.

And yet this high-class production by Jamie Fletcher shows it is in keeping with our gender-fluid age. When Divina De Campo makes her look-at-me entrance as Hedwig from the back of the theatre, milking the audience for applause, she is dressed in a stars-and-stripes cape that opens up to reveal the slogan “gender is a construct”. It’s safe to say that she and her excellent four-piece band, plus Elijah Ferreira as husband, Yitzhak, are happily unconstructed.

An antidote to binary divisions … Divina De Campo as Hedwig.
An antidote to binary divisions … Divina De Campo as Hedwig. Photograph: The Other Richard

Hedwig presents herself as the missing link between east and west, top and bottom, male and female, an antidote to binary divisions, as she makes her way from Europe to the US, Lotte Lenya accent intact. De Campo has more than just drag queen swagger; she matches her stage presence with an effortless vocal range, bringing resonance and subtlety to Stephen Trask’s songs.

Those songs are an amalgam of rock, funk, boogie-woogie and punk, showing the influences of everyone from Iggy Pop to REM, and expertly performed under the musical direction of Alex Beetschen. Accompanied by Daniel Denton’s colourful video designs, they are the pulsing bedrock of the show.

For all the talent on display, the show’s appeal passes me by today as much as it did on its original run in New York. Don’t take my word for it – the audience laps it up with gusto – but I can’t think of a show that leaves me so unsure of the joke or so puzzled about what it is trying to say.

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