Trans Creative and Contact
The Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford
10 November 2017 to 11 November 2017
At one point during You've Changed, writer/performer Kate O’Donnell addresses a delicate subject: the possibility that transgender politics might be in danger of becoming, like yodelling, a fad. It is a reasonable concern; nowadays theatres seem to be shoehorning the subject into productions in what looks like a desperate attempt to be trendy.
You've Changed avoids this pitfall, and many of the others associated with autobiographical theatre, by taking an understated, non-sensational approach to a subject in which many people take a prurient interest. An alternative title might have been So What? O’Donnell makes her case with clarity and simplicity – transitioning is a mental, rather than a physical act. Once one has identified one’s true identity, the physical process, in which people take such an interest, is secondary.
Childhood trauma, which is often used as a quick and easy way of determining motivation or generating pity, has an enabling purpose in You've Changed. Having abusive alcoholic parents from whom she was estranged meant that O’Donnell had no emotional entanglements to hold her back once her decision was made. O’Donnell plays most of her misadventures for laughs, saying she realised how hard it was going to be convincing people that transitioning was a good idea when even a pagan lesbian objected. Her psychiatrist took a ‘suck it and see’ approach to treatment, which may explain why he was later struck off for sexual misconduct. When O’Donnell applied for a mortgage to cover the cost of surgery, the stated purpose was ‘home improvements’; well, some plumbing was involved.
O’Donnell sets out to show how both she, and society, have changed since she transitioned in 2003. From O’Donnell’s viewpoint, society was then stuck with attitudes developed in the 1930s. As with much in the play, however, the point is made lightly and with grace. Director Mark Whitelaw sets a mood of subdued elegance. Katharine Heath’s set – monochrome with a screen upon which silent-movie-style surtitles are broadcast – has the atmosphere of a classic musical. O’Donnell exploits this mood to the maximum, entering in white tie and tails and ending tripping the light fantastic around the stage with partner Sean Murray while dressed in flowing gown and wig. That’s right: O’Donnell starts as Fred Astaire and ends up as Ginger Rogers.
Whitelaw ensures a highly varied production. Speeches are sung as well as spoken, and when O’Donnell remarks on the resemblance between her psychiatrist and a famous DJ she delivers his diagnosis in the breathless style of a Top of the Pops presenter. When addressing the fascination people have with the physical side of transitioning, she does so in a confrontational manner, revealing her vagina, neatly framed in a mini-proscenium arch with red curtains, and mocking the ridiculous questions that are often asked.
Transgender politics may well be in danger of becoming a theatrical fad, but You've Changed shows it can still be the subject of a moving and thought-provoking piece.
Reviewer: David Cunningham