I saw a snippet of this show in preview a while ago and marvelled then at how a simple snip of fabric from a vest could make such a fabulously appropriate costume. In economy it’s up there with Liz Aggiss pulling all of her costumes, and more, out of her pants. It makes a statement about the female body and performance that is both sassy and comical, which is pretty much how the modern world views Dolly Parton. There’s an ear-shattering moment late in Sh!t Theatre’s entertainingly chaotic show when Dolly’s body and appearance are picked over by male interviewers in the most sexist language imaginable.
It’s a given that Louise Mothersole and Rebecca (Becca) Biscuit would base the sixty minutes of Dollywould around Dolly Parton’s distinctive look and sound, her music, how much she is a construct of her time, how she fed an industry and built an empire. They do all this of course – but being Sh!t Theatre, they do so much more.
So we have Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal, butting up against Dolly Parton look-a-likes and Dolly dolls, and Dolly herself as a created being. Very little is known about Parton’s private life: there’s a husband she rarely sees and a Judy she shares a room with on tour. Might she be gay? Of course – just listen to the lyrics of ‘Touch Your Woman’! We have death, courtesy of the Tennessee Body Farm, conveniently located next to Dollywood, to remind us of what we leave behind. Parton has made sure her legacy survives in countless Dolly branded gifts and merchandise, let alone the unforgettable ‘Nine to Five’ which titled the inevitable jukebox musical.
We have musings on fame and stardom (the show is Sh!t Theatre’s self-proclaimed mainstream cross-over hit), and on sexism and feminism, exhilaratingly delivered by the couple wearing their familiar white-face make-up, plus woolly wigs and pink vests with boob holes in. The stage is a messy white romper room spattered with clothes and balloons – a swing seat becomes an abattoir hook.
Louise and Becca vocalise in unison Parton’s answers to a probing 1977 interview by Barbara Walters. Every nuance is accentuated making you almost hear Parton’s thought process as she fields another personal brickbat. They harmonise beautifully, even though the mandolin is out of key. Other commentators have their words performed with added speech affectations, a device which is oddly thrilling.
A film of the company’s road trip to Dollywood provides the backbone of the piece and both helps and hinders the storytelling. It’s funny and revealing, but the frequent switch of focus between screen and stage slows things down and it sometimes seem a struggle to pull all the various themes together. There are moments of clever narrative interweaving: the photocopier malfunction (hinted at in the film) and the description of tattoos hardening into dead skin which loops back to the Body Farm episode satisfy. I do miss the intimacy of Letters to Windsor House. This previous show and most of their earlier work – from the first experiments seen at The Basement in Brighton, through to the Total Theatre Award winning JSA (Job Seekers Anonymous) in 2013 – had been built around personal experience, so Dollywould is a move in a different direction. In pulling off that tricky transition from small- to mid-scale, Sh!t Theatre have proved themselves capable and successful theatre makers. They sit alongside other pioneering young feminist performance anarchists such as Get In the Back of the Van and Rash Dash with their own special character and popular appeal.
Ladies of Sh!t Theatre – long may you continue to knock us out with your great voices and brilliant comic timing. Behind the enormous false boobs and shaggy wigs, you have a lot to say, and you so it so well. Dolly would, no doubt, approve.