She enters in a red blouse, knee-length beige skirt and heels. There are turquoise earrings peeping out from beneath her lank blonde hair and, on her bare arm, a bracelet to match. She also has a manly jut to her jaw and an unflattering paunch. When she speaks, it is with the actorly baritone of Simon Callow. “Everybody stares at me on Tuesdays,” says the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” actor in this tender one-man portrait of a transsexual woman trying in vain to earn her father’s acceptance. It is an authoritative, humane and brave performance that quietly challenges the perceptions of a mainstream aud.
The English-language preem is translated by Sarah Vermande and Mathew Hurt from “Le Mardi a Monoprix,” a hit in France for scribe Emmanuel Darley. Tesco, the UK’s most successful supermarket, is where Pauline takes her father to do his weekly shopping. It is a routine as ordinary and unexceptional as anyone’s: stocking up on basics, picking up a treat from the “finest” section, figuring out which will be the fastest line-up, smiling at the cashier and packing the groceries. Yet for Pauline, formerly Paul, each mundane task seems like a threat, another opportunity for someone to give her a sneering glance or make a frosty remark.
She may feel more comfortable in this female skin than she did as her former male self, but her awareness of being different, of not fitting in, of transgressing, is continual — so much so that a non-committal greeting from one of the staff strikes her as an open-armed gesture of acceptance.
The sense of alienation is exacerbated by her aging father, characterized by Callow as a gruff, taciturn and uncomprehending old man who is unwilling or incapable of accepting her sex change, despite her slavish devotion to his care. It is a portrait of a relationship that many will recognize: Here there are special circumstances, but the gulf of misunderstanding between the generations and the duo’s inability to retie the bonds of parent-child love have universal resonance. The poignancy of Darley’s script lies as much in this as it does in its liberal plea for tolerating people as they want to be.
Helmer Simon Stokes gives Callow the space to play the rhythmic repetitions of the text in a way that underscores the futility of the situation. The more he reminds us this is nothing more than a Tuesday-morning shopping trip, the more deep-seated the sense of persecution becomes. At the same time, this is not an indulgent performance. Despite his costume, Callow does not camp it up. He has a feel for the play’s black comedy and, in between scenes, enjoys brief carefree moments of skipping and dancing to suggest the life denied to Pauline.
Appearing on a simple but effective diagonal hoop of a set by Robin Don and accompanied by Conor Mitchell’s live, fragmented piano score, like a composition in the making, Callow gives a wistful, meditative and intelligent performance that refuses to play to the gallery.