As Leslie Jordan’s latest comedy routine begins, the big question that can seemingly only be answered through one man’s anecdotal reflections is, “Do gay men really become their mothers?” While Jordan does his very best to describe how his mother supported him as he turned his sexuality into a dominant personality trait, Mama’s absence from the stage makes it hard to tell if the maternal transformation is complete. One thing’s for certain, though: as Jordan invites us into a space so full of personal stories it could be considered domestic despite its 420 seat capacity, the grown-up son no longer needs his mommy to generate embarrassment as he takes us through his own back-catalogue of baby photos.
Although in his late fifties, with his diminutive height and wealth of superlatives, Jordan has a childlike energy in both stature and speech. It is with such vitality that our camp Hollywood actor takes us back to the Tennessee of the 1960s. Here, we meet the little boy who, when discovering that his pretty, blonde twin sisters were commandeering far more than their fair share of attention, devoted himself to a life of flamboyance.
At times this performance seems ruinously over-directed. When imagining the day of his father’s funeral, Jordan solemnly turns his back to his audience, miming the actions of a newly-widowed mother as she explains a very difficult subject to her three young children. Mama’s channelled explanations are briskly severed as gunshots and brass solos take us to Jordan’s memory of a military funeral. Sadly, valid ways of acknowledging a deeply affecting memory sit uncomfortably on stage, clouding the emotion that no doubt lies behind this significant inclusion.
When Jordan calms his style, skipping across the stage and holding back our laughter with one raised palm and a whole mountain of false modesty, his sickly sweet sincerity gets a warm reception. Some snapshots of mother bear a more relaxed and genuine sensitivity and sometimes, when Jordan unleashes his infectious laugh, you can see why so many fall for his camp charm. Occasionally, he pulls off witticisms that could’ve been ripped straight out of a joke book with winning authenticity; mother’s devout background and dependence upon men draw laughs as, when asked for her prefered denomination when purchasing travellers’ cheques, she swiftly replies “Baptist”.
True, there are moments of tenderness here. Powering through a routine peppered with the Tennessee vernacular, and claiming local expressions and in-jokes as his own, Jordan speaks favourably of the Southern women who fashioned a protective bubble around the little boy who chose to play with dolls. The love story that emerges between Jordan’s mom and dad is a delight when unravelled, especially as our comic articulates the little class differences that existed between the couple: her envisioning a canopy as something to place above the bed; him, imagining it tucked just below the frame, with Jordan stressing the syllables with a vulgar drawl. Can. O. Pee.
After such romance is nostalgically portrayed, Jordan fasts forward to his own youth, a period defined by a joyful, rebellious hedonism, and charged by “feminine yearning” and daydreams about the night before. There’s more than one kind of spirit present as our actor tells relatable tales of teenage nights spent sneaking out of the family house, and the narrative is strong when it settles in a speakeasy, the only place where a 17-year-old transvestite and his three pals could get a measure of hooch early on a 1970s morning.
While the image of a drunk, overweight bar manager encouraging our reserved, Caucasian teen to take to the stage to perform Tina Turner paints a charming image of a welcoming community, Jordan’s show is less inclusive. Those who find it easy to guffaw at tales of a 13-year-old contracting gonorrhea on a boys’ choir coach trip may see Jordan as a treasure; others, who perhaps believe that women were put on this earth for far better reasons than to inspire drag characters, function as ‘fruit flies’ who associate with gay men or take on marginalised lesbian stereotypes, Jordan is infuriating and excessively self indulgent. Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience here, but unfortunately the story that I found easiest to relate to was that of a mother who, for psychosomatic reasons, could not keep her eyes open. By this point in a tale that was both over-familiar and unfamiliar, neither could I.
Fruit Fly is playing at Leicester Square Theatre until 16 March. For more information and tickets, see the Leicester Square Theatre website.