Dickie Beau does speak on stage – he was the National Theatre’s pantomime dame in lockdown. But he’s better known for channelling other voices, lip-syncing latter-day Judy Garland or a throng of famous Hamlets. An astounding Ariel in the Ustinov’s Tempest this summer, he returns for a questing solo show, a living meditation on theatre.
Beau eyes us with disarming attention as we arrive. His show initially promises a merry theatrical miscellany, with tales of Ian McKellen’s worst night on stage and the afterlife of Edmund Kean’s sword. Beau has fun with the fitful rules of theatrical engagement, clunking his head on a mime’s invisible glass wall.
Gradually, the focus of his interviews – including actor Fiona Shaw, a voice coach, an impressionist, a critic – broadens and deepens. What are the origins of theatre: playful or priestly? The scattered props – mop, skull, astronaut’s helmet – serve eminently practical functions during the show, which holds ineffable questions (“How do you keep your heart open in hell?”) alongside pragmatic ones (how do you butter toast without a knife?).
With a galleon tattoo on each arm, Beau lets his imagination set sail and, physically, he’s an astonishment. He eases between florid dance drama and sly acts of impersonation. It’s a paradox of his art that he can be so vocally revealing without uttering a sound of his own. An interviewee suggests he’d once have been burned at the stake for unleashing these eerie voices. He raises spirits: this lip-sync is closer to possession than parody, each voice arriving like a doubtful guest then settling into his skin. For much of the evening, he resists mouthing to his own voice – can you be possessed by your own self?
“What is the point?” he wonders. “Why does one do it?” Directed by Jan-willem van den Bosch, this investigation of theatre burrows less into the travails of putting on a show or the delight of showing off, but asks what you show, what you tell or is told through you. Both performer and audience, Beau suggests, bear witness to the intensity of human experience – lip-syncing for all our lives.
At Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, until 10 December.