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Published on Sunday, 02 June 2013

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5 stars

Marlborough Theatre (venue website)
30 May, 7:30pm-8:30pm; 31 May, 1-2 Jun, 6:00pm-7:00pm
Reviewed by Mathilda Gregory

 World Premiere.
 Suitable for age 16+ only.

Claudia Jeffries – in make up that’s on the border between The Only Way is Essex and full-clown – crab-walks onto the Marlborough stage, listing to one side like a broken doll. As we take in her plastic smile and her stained, torn tutu, she comes closer, walking like a toddler. Then she goes back offstage does it again. To nervous laughter, Jeffries announces “I’m Jewel; I’m entering a beauty pageant. If I don’t win, I’m going to be upset.” And we’re off to another place.

This show is a surreal and disturbing ride, and you really do have to cling on tight, but there’s a simple linear plot in there too. Jewel is desperate to win her pageant, where she’s competing along with her mother and grandmother. All three characters are played magnificently by the mercurial Jeffries, who at points even seems to change her teeth. There’s a fourth character too: a puckish, hot-pink-clad, Leigh-Bowery-inspired presence who appears to whirl the show into darkness and chaos, clucking and squawking with some kind of frightening, malevolent femininity.

You see, this is a show about the business of performing femininity, and the ticking clock which robs women of their chances to be accepted. We meet the harshly-critical mother, jealous of her daughter; and the lonely grandmother, obsessed with what could have been. Diamond, Jewel’s grandmother, is the most tragic of the unfortunate trio, robbed of her chance of winning Miss America because she was discovered to be pregnant with Jewel’s mother.

The costumes, along with the hideous make up, reinforce the show’s ideas perfectly. There are shabby cocktail dresses glittering bitterly, and foam heads on spikes representing the characters not currently inhabited by Jeffries’ astounding presence. Jeffries plays with ideas of how women are meant to construct themselves – and reveals, with brave physicality, how that dainty move can become something grotesque, something you want to look away from, something that feels threatening, when she leaves the stage and brings her twisted gyrations into the audience.

Perfectly chosen musical numbers and exquisite facial expressions tumble out of this show, together with a whole slew of ideas about how women are valued, how they ought to present themselves and how they become devalued. It’s almost too much to take in. And amongst all this is a plot that makes the audience genuinely care for Jewel’s fate as she stumbles and triumphs.

This is another excellent show at the Marlborough Theatre – who have produced the strongest, most thoughtful programme at Brighton Fringe this year – full of ideas, and starring a performer with a throbbing, roof-raising energy. Magnificently, though Jeffries got out of breath at times, she got out of breath in character. I’d crown her the Queen of femininity without a second thought.

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