Penny Arcade. Photo Jasmine Hirst

Penny Arcade: The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Penny Arcade is sitting on the edge of the stage as we enter, dressed in a short pleated skirt and T-shirt, dark tights and shiny black ankle boots, her magenta-coloured hair glowing under the lights. She swings her legs against the stage front, smiles at people she knows, returns greetings, waits for us all to get settled. Then it’s up and away and straight into the dominant mode of the evening – a confessional autobiographical monologue delivered with passionate force from the very front of the stage.

For those of us who know and love her, the stories are familiar. For those new to her, they’re a revelation. Either way, it’s rivetting stuff. So here in precis: a working-class small-town American upbringing in an immigrant Italian family, a life saved by the friendship of drag queens, a subsequent reign as the queen of New York City’s queer performance scene. Talking of her family’s arrival in the USA, she says, These people weren’t looking to broaden their horizons – these people HAD NO FOOD. Her early life as a daughter of low-paid manual labourers was pretty hellish, just trying to survive in a family in which girls were not supposed to be smart or talk back, they were supposed to just do as they were told. Wash this, clean that, shut your face. By age 13, she was in a borstal. On her weekend trips back home, she climbed out of her bedroom window and went off partying with a car full of drag queens. Life was bleak, but they wore glitter. One day she headed out of town with them and never came back…

The narrative skips all the stuff about her time at Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous in the 1960s and 1970s, or performing in Femme Fatale (where she shared a stage with Wayne County and Patti Smith) and only briefly mentions her seminal show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! which toured the world in the 1980s, and has recently been revived. She’s keen to move on to talking about one of her key themes for the evening: hyper-gentrification. She is livid about the damage done to her beloved Lower East Side (Manhattan) over the past quarter-century by the destruction of slum housing and subsequent moving out of the hobos and junkies and whores and rent boys to make way for the 2,000 dollar a month studios, the chi chi shops, and the pricey cappuccino bars. She tells us how lucky we are to live here in Brighton – but warns us that we are only an hour away from London, and look what’s happening there. Don’t we all know it…

Her other running theme for the night is age and ageing – and specifically how good it is to be over 50 (she’s 65, she tells us proudly), because there is no longer any need to be trapped by the failings of your past. And anyone who at 50 is still moaning that their life has been ruined by poverty, or a violent family, or a sexual molester, or whatever – well, get over yourself. If someone else were to say this, we’d perhaps see it as harsh or critical. But this is a girl who was beaten and molested and brought up poor and all the rest. The message here is: Look at me. Be a survivor not a victim. Don’t whinge. Stand up for yourself. Fight back.

So this is one big block of her onstage time this evening, the heart of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, all very warmly received by a packed house at the Marlborough, home of the Pink Fringe. The other block of material is in a different performance mode: a trio of character portraits from that lost Manhattan. The writing is good and Penny Arcade is a seasoned performer, but some of us are so enthralled by her personal stories that the sudden shift into dramatic set-pieces feels odd, as we suddenly seem to be watching a different show – one in which wigs and props and changing accents are the tools of the trade rather than direct address to the audience.

First up is the vignette of an ageing drag queen called Margot, retelling tales of her relationship with Harlem’s top drug dealer. There are some lovely moments – such as the drag queen slapping down the dealer for calling himself a ‘nigger’, and then the whole awkward moment in the bedroom when Margot’s masculine parts are tucked away neatly in her panty girdle, which gets enthusiastically whipped off. But as a whole the character doesn’t feel perfectly inhabited, on this occasion anyway. The second one is stronger: Penny’s Aunt Lucy, who she has hardly ever spent time with, sitting in her armchair shouting orders and enjoying the delights of a tub of Cool Whip. ‘Look at this – zero fat, zero protein, zero everything!’. Finally to the best of the three, a street-dwelling junkie girl, whose ticks and scratches and stutters and enthusiastic desperation Penny catches perfectly.

The end of the show sees the wigs off, and Ms Arcade returning to herself, delighting us with her witty, acerbic, astute commentaries on contemporary life, and her debunking of sacred cows. Inevitably, there’s warm appreciation from the audience at the end of the show. This is Penny Arcade’s first appearance in Brighton, and she’s made her mark – all praise to The Marlborough for bringing off this coup. Here’s to the next time…

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.