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BWW Reviews: MADAME: THE STORY OF JOSEPH FARRUGIA Tells Of A Richly Varied Life And Career

Reviewed by Barry Lenny Saturday 25th April 2015

Torque Show, in association with Vitalstatistix and the State Theatre Company, is presenting Madame: The Story of Joseph Farrugia, the end result of a couple of years of preparation that began with Ross Ganf conducting a long series of interviews with Joseph Farrugia. His parents took the family and left Egypt as refugees, initially for Wales, and later migrated to Australia when he was still a schoolboy, struggling to come to terms with the English language. His sister did well academically but his lack of English proved problematical.

At an early age he discovered a love for performing, for dance and theatre and, eventually, this led to his career as the female impersonator, Madame Josephine, and establishing an iconic adult entertainment venue that he recently sold after running it for 33 years. The names Crazy Horse and Madame Josephine's are synonymous with the entire history and development of the style of the adult entertainment scene in Adelaide.

When he began, in 1981, his shows were Burlesque, with a range of acts such as comedians, singers, magicians, and more performing alongside the stunningly dressed striptease artists, with the accent more on tease than nudity. Patrons sat, we were told, in cabaret format at tables covered with white table cloths.

The Burnside Ballroom, where this production is being performed, has been set up with white tablecloth covered tables, and a catwalk has been erected projecting from the stage out through the audience. Set and lighting designer, Geoff Cobham, has transformed the ballroom into a club of the past, assisted by lots of glittering gold decoration all around the front of the upper levels and on the stage. There is a large screen on the stage for videos and photos from the past, showing how things used to be.

Over the years, of course, the artistic aspects, such as performers rising from a large clam shell, echoing paintings of the past, are long gone, with the beautiful gowns and elegant routines. Now the demand of the customers is total nudity, up close and personal, with far greater physicality offered by such things as pole dancing, and the contact of strip shows and lap dancing in private booths.

This is a 'no holds barred', 'warts and all' production in which Farrugia has been very candid about the personal costs of his career, as well as the good things that he gained from it. We hear of the awful effects of taking hormones on him, something he chose to do in order to develop a figure for his other side, Josephine. We hear of the accusations in court and his loss of his 'surrogate' son, and of the lover that left, refusing all entreaties and offers.

Chris Scherer, Trevor Stuart, and Kialea-Nadine Williams portray various aspects of Farrugia, the younger man, the mature man, and his alter ego, Madame Josephine. Joseph Farrugia is a private person, the quiet businessman, running the business with Leona Monaghan, his business partner. Becoming Madame Josephine is, to him, not playing a character, but changing completely into another person, one who can say and do things that Joseph never would.

Joseph Farrugia was there on the night that I attended and, my guest and I chatting after the show revealed that he is a softly spoken, erudite, and utterly charming man, with no indication whatever of Madame Josephine about him. We see her on stage, bold, sassy and the centre of attention, exactly where she likes to be. The contrast is amazing. I had never 'met' either of them before but, by the end of the evening one felt as though both were acquaintances of long standing.

This, of course is due to the writing and direction by Ross Ganf and his two collaborators, Ingrid Weisfelt and Vincent Crowley. The development was carried out in conjunction with Emma Webb of Vitalstatistix Theatre Company, together with State Theatre Company.

It is also due to three sensational performances by the cast, presenting part dance, part theatre, part historical documentary, part biography, and yet none of these and all of them at the same time. It is a genre all of its own, which one feels is exactly fitting, considering who this work is about. Even more gripping is the knowledge that the words we hear are all his own, taken from the hundreds of hours of recorded interviews, which the cast have spent a lot of time learning, complete with every vocal mannerism, pause, and rethink mid sentence.

Chris Scherer, with his long flowing locks and slightly built body, gives a most edgy performance as the younger Joseph, suggesting almost an asexuality in the young man. Trevor Stuart is remarkable as the older Joseph, capturing the personality and mannerisms of Farrugia and covering the highs and lows of his emotional journey. Kialea-Nadine Williams is vastly different, strutting, posing, a mass of confidence as Josephine, taking command and interacting with the Crazy Horse audience on her own term. A trained dancer with the Australian Dance Theatre, she has revealed a natural talent as an actor. Rumour has it that she can also sing, which makes her that person so many aspire to be, a 'triple threat'.

Around the edge of the ballroom is a bonus, an exhibition of very artistic photos, by Ben McGee, of the 2013 Miss Nude Australia pageant.

This is a sensational piece of theatre, unlike any other, moving, informative, enlightening, funny, sad, poignant, and with, thankfully, a happy ending. As Joseph Farrugia joined the cast for the final bows he brought the audience up to date on a few things. Do drop in to the Burnside Ballroom before this production closes, get drinks from the bar to take to your table to quaff during the performance, and experience something out of the ordinary.

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From This Author - Barry Lenny