A Perfect Specimen (Nathaniel Moncrieff)


Black Swan Theatre Company

Studio Underground

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Fascination with human disfigurement is as old as mankind. That archetypal figure, The Bearded Lady, who’d come to town as a star of this or that travelling freak show, was a source of endless curiosity. In some – perhaps most – cases, the Bearded Lady would have been a fraud aided by a skilled make-up artist – or, very rarely –  it might have been the real thing.


In the opening moments of Nathaniel Moncrieff’s play – A Perfect Specimen – we see Julia Pastrana seated, her face almost entirely obscured by a scarf over the much publicised beard which can barely be made out.  But, while in conversation with her husband cum manager Theodore Lent, the latter leans towards the seated figure and carefully removes her beard and headgear to reveal an attractive young women with an unblemished visage.


What is one to make of this?


With nothing about this mentioned  in an otherwise informative and helpful program booklet,  I imagine that at least some, if not many, of the audience would have assumed that the ‘bearded lady’ was nothing of the sort, a charlatan, a not uncommon state of affairs in many, if not most, of these bizarre travelling shows that reached their highest popularity in the late 19th century.


What was NOT explained in the program booklet was that, apparently, the removal of scarf and beard was deliberately decided upon to allow the play to proceed without visual distraction. But surely, at least some of those in the audience would have come to the conclusion that the Bearded Lady was a fraud – not the real thing. And this would give an altogether different perspective on the play.


Shortly after the performance had ended and while in the adjacent parking garage, I spoke to three theatre goers at random. Each told me they’d assumed the central character was not the real thing at all but a fraud (opined one) or a confidence trickster (said the others).


This notwithstanding, the play is genuinely fascinating with Adriane Daff as a  touching figure, whose dilemma is exacerbated when she falls pregnant. If, because of this, she’d had any hopes of being allowed to give up her theatrical work, they were dashed. Her appalling husband would not hear of it. Shortly after giving birth, both mother and baby died. Incredibly, Lent – whose awfulness must have seemed boundless to those who came into contact with him – arranged that the bodies of both mother and child were mummified. And then, he used the mummified bodies to coax even bigger audiences to pay for entry to gawp at this dreadful sight.


Adding to Julia’s misery is the knowledge that her faithless husband is having an affair with Marian Trumbull played by Rebecca Davis as the travelling show’s acrobat.


Frances Danckert’s set design fits into the action perfectly. Tatty, bedraggled side-drapes look as if they might have been found in some charity bin – and the circular, revolving stage also looks as if it hasn’t be swept for weeks, perhaps months.  There’s an all-encompassing, seedy drabness that is theatrically perfect. And Joe Lui’s lighting design cleverly underscores the visual tattiness of the set.




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