Paid Fantasist is the first collaboration between Rebecca Biscuit and Nick Field. Biscuit is half of the multi-award-winning Sh!t Theatre; Field a celebrated performer, writer and artist. Their show is inspired by an interview with Tom Baker in 1978 in The Times when at the height of his Dr. Who fame, in which he describes a ‘fairly typical day’ in his life. This day includes fantasy, supernatural experiences, suicidal thoughts, crossword puzzles, autograph signings, a voiceover for bathing products, witnessing a heart attack, cabaret, jazz and a massive amount of drinking.
The show opens with the text of this interview, told delicately as if both performers have mild hangovers, overlooked by a projected image of Baker as the Doctor. They’re sitting at a cheap café table surrounded by empty Pret packages; dressed like glamorous, geeky fans at a sci-fi convention, with Tom Baker hats and smudged eyeliner. I quickly find myself sharing their apparent nostalgia for Tom’s version of Soho, and envious of his gloriously hedonistic carelessness, enjoying this weird story and the charismatic storytellers. So far, so straightforward.
Then things get weirder and even more interesting, just as you imagine a night out with Tom Baker might do. You’re not allowed to settle into self indulgent nostalgia – as nice as that would be. The performers re-construct Tom’s ‘average day’ by visiting his haunts on documentary-style DIY film footage, which they watch with us. We see them discovering en route what has survived and what has been replaced by food chains (it’s sad, ‘but gentrification tastes so good!’ they tell us). The filmed sections of them traipsing around Soho are intercut by live repetitions of ‘Soho’s changed so much’ whilst pointing out that quite a lot of the landmark pubs and bars are still there. We see them lamenting the passing of Ronnie Scott’s whilst standing outside it.
After this we are back to live storytelling: Biscuit describes her excitement visiting Soho as a child, coming home with black snot – ‘the most exciting thing that happened to anyone ever!’. They both recount those places in their provincial childhoods which provided the ‘magic and dreams’ that Soho does: a beautiful yellow shop that sold incense; a cemetery hang-out for the local weirdoes, musos and queers. They tell us how ‘every town needs a Soho or it’s fucked’. There’s real warmth and camaraderie between the two new collaborators, united in celebration of the importance of such wonderlands in our towns and cities, where other eccentrics and outsiders can thrive.
The company have a profound understanding of the power of myth, and they set about expanding the fantasy ‘skinny ladies’ that Tom mentions in his newspaper interview. We see them on film again (this time the style is a little more kitschy British Horror circa 1960s) spookily sloping about – two drag goddesses in brightly coloured wigs, the spirit of Soho come to life in chiffon maxi-dresses. Next, they bring the myth to CPT by imagining acts for them at the infamous Colony Rooms – an erotic champagne-based live art piece, and a torch song which channels Kate Bush, who in turn channels Margaret Thatcher. They recount the legend of the moment Soho changed, on the third of May1979, when Tom Baker, Jeffrey Bernard and Frances Bacon were getting pissed, and someone burst in to announce Thatcher’s triumph. All of a sudden the Colony Rooms were filled with Tory boys who ‘knew the future looked like them’. They tell us how neo-liberalism was no longer a fringe idea but about to become mainstream, seeding the beginning of the transformation that brings us up-to-date to our own late capitalism.
Biscuit & Field then reflect on Doctor Who’s own regeneration: we see archive footage of the episode when Tom Baker was ushered out of the Tardis as youthful, blue-eyed blonde Peter Davison… Afterwards, onstage, the performers recount how by 2015 Soho’s raucous cabaret Madam Jojo’s was shut down, luxury flats had hastily popped up, all the neon sex shops had disappeared overnight, and suddenly Pret-a-Mangers were everywhere. But these skilful performers playfully challenge our tendency to self-mythologise and romanticise the past, reminding us that we can only tell ourselves it was better back in the good ol’ days by cherry-picking the facts and our own memories to improve it. They also remind us that the trouble with regeneration is that you never know what you’re going to get. Maybe, as they said, we lost the best Doctor Who ever. Or maybe the best is yet to come?
This show left me asking: What else have we lost? Simply a nightclub, a scene? …. Or something more profound? Can this kind of change ever be positive? With beautiful words, wit and weird acts, and the easy warmth of a double act that seems much more established than it is, Biscuit & Field made me consider the deeper soul-reaching effects of these changes. How we must protect what we are able to protect; and create new spaces and places for freedom, self expression and unbranded joy.