F E S 'I' I V A l EPREVIEWE
Three all-male companies on this year’s Fringe prefer to dress in women’s clothing. Liam Rudden drags himself out to meet Paul and
Reg, the alter-egos of LILY SAVAGE and REGINA FONG, to talk about sex, sexism and ridiculous wigs.
omedy, music and outrageous camp: standard fare for the world’s biggest arts festival, butnot normally available so profusely in drag. From Liverpool, Lily Savage; from ‘Russia’, Regina Fong and, from New York, La Gran Scena Opera, a burlesque company of asexual divas. All men playing at women. And all in love with their creations.
Female impersonation dates back centuries — the Emperor Nero played an incestuous sister who gave birth on stage, 19th-century American circuses would disguise male acrobats as girls to make the stunts seem more impressive, and in World War Two, British troops would turn into, ahem, troupes to help relieve the tension. The audience, meanwhile, be it for Danny La Rue, Dame Edna Everage or for Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre in its cross-dressing days, has always been broad. The appeal is curious. Is it the androgynous nature of the performer, or is it the opposite, the grotesque cartoon-like quality created by a man playing a woman?
‘Marxist sex kitten, mother of two, and former Miss Pears (1957) . . .’ is one description given to Lily Savage, who may also be familiar as Roxanne — Sgt Roach’s transvestite informant in The Bill. On stage, Lily not only claims to be Liverpool’s loudest shoplifter, but also has a ‘neat line in foul-mouthed wit’ , and a coil which causes no end of hilarious problems. Off stage, away from the thigh-length boots, enormous wig, and sequined glitter is ex-social worker, Paul Savage.
Over a pint, he explains how the character came about. ‘I was a social worker at the time, and by night I was in a drag act called The Playgirls. Eventually I realised that turning up for work in the morning with a hangover, and having to visit some old lady,
who was very ill, while I was still covered in glitter from the night before just wasn’t fair. The transition from social worker to club entertainer came about one night purely by chance when the compere of a club in which Savage was working failed to appear. ‘The boss asked ifI would stand in, and after about ten whiskies I agreed.’
That was the first public outing of a larger-than-life character which later become known as Lily Savage, a name picked up from the seedier side of the Mersey. ‘One night while I was working in a club in Liverpool I was invited to a party aboard a ship in the clock. It turned out to be a Chinese ship called the Wang Fu or something. Anyway, I stayed at the party until the next morning— not doing anything mind, just enjoying the party, but when I got back to work everyone was calling me Shanghai Lil, and it just stuck. Savage was my mother’s maiden name. I wanted a name to match the character, you know, the kind of woman who’d work in a market selling vegetables. Lily Savage seemed to be a perfect description for that “I’m-having-no-messing” kind ofwoman.’
When this particular ‘I’m-having-no-messing’ kind of a woman steps onto the stage at the Assembly Rooms be warned, it’s not a show for the easily offended. Lily gets away with gags other acts would never dare attempt. ‘How do you get a fanny up your arse?’ she screams at two rather obvious lesbians. The crowd love it, even the unfortunate couple who have been singled out. It must be pointed out that it is not a good idea to heckle Lily — no matter what the provocation. When Jonathon Ross asked how she handled hecklers, Lily explained her method for subduing unruly audience members. ‘I just grab them, pull off one of their legs, and smack them about the face with the wet end.’
Regina Fong, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different, as Reg Bundy, the chap behind this Russian aristocratic lady, is quick to point out. ‘While Lily is your scouse housewife, Regina is this grand duchess who has the ability to put her foot in it without ever realising it. She tries to be so grand, but she’s so off her head that she makes a fool of herself. People have described her to me as being like their favourite aunt.’
Written by Alistair Campbell, Regina Fong — Last of the Romanoffs is, for want of a better term, a straight play. It follows her adventures from the time of the revolution, and plots her story decade by decade. ‘It’s her life story, from when she left Russia in 1917 through until today. She’s in Paris in
the 19203, then during the blitz she’s with the
Royal Family. then she goes to Hollywood to make movies. All sorts ofthings happen to her but she just sails through life totally oblivious, and above it all.’
Bundy’s progression into the world of
dressing-up was as unpremeditated as that of :
Savage. ‘1 found this dress in a dustbin,’ he laughs. ‘No. I trained as a dancer and actor
and did films and all the West End shows and
all that business, and then work just dried up, as it does. One night I went into a pub in North London, and they were planning a
Christmas show. I said I’d choreograph it for i
18 The List 9— 15 August 1991