First, I must declare an interest: like the male lead in this production, I have shortened arms and irregular-shaped hands caused by the morning sickness drug, thalidomide. What’s more, Mat Fraser has been a close friend for several years and I’ve long been a supporter and an admirer of his work, especially when it’s to do with our common impairment. Some years ago he wrote and staged “Thalidomide!! A Musical” which I saw no fewer than four times.
Along with another ‘thalidomider’ (as we generally call ourselves) - Fred Dove of BBC World Service fame - Mat and I would regularly sit down over a curry and compare notes. All three of us have media careers, so it was very often interesting to find out which projects we were involved in and what was currently floating our boats. We would also share news of our domestic lives: we heard the news of Mat’s engagement and then wedding with his first wife, Patou, and then the gradual realisation that they weren’t meant for each other. Mat would often talk wistfully about his artistic collaborator, Julie Atlas Muz, to the extent that we knew that their connection was more than simply artistic.
Mat and Patou eventually separated (amicably) and he began to split his time between London and New York in order to spend time with Julie. They were married in New York in 2012 and the wedding epitomised their extravert, alternative lifestyle - zombie schoolgirl bridesmaids and all. I was extremely sorry to have missed it.
Julie is an award-winning burlesque performer, having been crowned Miss Coney Island and Miss Exotic World in the same year. She shares Mat’s penchant for challenging audiences with bold displays of nudity and overtly sexual performances. When they’re in town, I’m a regular visitor to a monthly, informal burlesque show called Sleaze, at Camden's Lockside Lounge which often culminates in a rousing performance of “John Brown’s Body” performed by Mat in military fatigues during which he and Julie simulate oral sex.
Although this is a time of year when people traditionally think of introducing their offspring or grandchildren to the delights of live theatre, this performance is probably one best avoided. It weaves the telling of a classic tale with the story of how Mat and Julie fell in love in real life. It uses, to great effect, a sort of magic lantern picture show to recount the opening of the story and involves - in addition to the two principals - two young actors who serve as stage hands, puppeteers and in supporting roles.
As ‘The Beast’ is ashamed of his deformed arms, he is initially presented to Beauty with Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon forming his arms and gesticulating convincingly. Over time, Beauty persuades her Beast to lose his inhibitions, to abandon the artifice of his corporal supporters and to show himself as he really is.
For me, a thalidomide man, this was a poignant moment - I suppose we all harbour insecurities about our physical differences and these are exposed and explored by Mat and Julie as they begin to fall for each other, both within the story and in real life.
From time to time, the narrative is interrupted and either Mat or Julie appear under a single spotlight to tell part of their own romantic journey. We learn, for example, how Julie’s mother (a Ukrainian-born ophthalmologist who emigrated to the US) wanted to know why her daughter intended to marry ‘a cripple’. Though shocked by her mother’s reaction, Julie finishes the story by saying how much she respects her desire to protect her daughter.
Skilfully directed by Phelim McDermott, this is both a tough and a tender performance - certainly one that won’t leave the audience cold. It explores notions of difference, the chemistry of romance and the passion that has brought together the Beast who is my friend and the Beauty with whom he has had the good fortune to fall in love.