Dancing Bear at The Palace
Please note this review was originally written for North West End and can be found here.
In the cast and crew Q&A after opening night of new musical Dancing Bear, Director Jamie Fletcher said, ‘Dancing Bear is queer theatre. In that, it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s multidisciplinary and hard to put a label on it.’ To have a piece of queer theatre like Dancing Bear on a mainstream stage such as The Palace in Manchester is an absolute joy in itself.
Exploring a long list of difficult themes without ever allowing the audience to feel uncomfortable or lingering too long on tough-to-hear but necessary messages, Dancing Bear unpacks the ‘Holy Trinity of Headf***s’: Faith, sexuality and gender identity.
Produced for the Queer Contact Festival and starring the dazzling Owen Farrow, better known as Divina De Campo, as the face of the show; which is supported by a whole host of abundantly talented performers from Jamie Fletcher and Company who seamlessly flow between rhythmic spoken word, big anthemic show tunes, sophisticated contemporary dance and all to the sound of them playing their own instruments and carrying the beautiful soundtrack (that you can hear and buy here). There is so much talent up on that stage and each and every one of them is a credible LGBTQ+ artist.
To ensure Dancing Bear does what is at its heart, which is to be inclusive, the company have incorporated BSL interpretation and audio description into the show to aid visual and deaf/hard of hearing audience members. This isn’t someone at the side of the stage in a corner, interpreter Katie Fenwick is actually part of the show, acting and dancing as well as signing, and she is spellbinding to watch. Dancing Bear even made BSL history proving it’s at the absolute forefront of contemporary society discussion by having to create a whole new sign for ‘intersex’ to include.
Dancing Bear opens with the whole cast at the front of the stage, breaking the fourth wall before the curtain is even all the way up. They introduce themselves, each as members identifying in some way with the LGBTQ+ community and through the show they share very personal experiences that writer and musician (with an angelic voice) Beccy Owen revealed underwent a lot of interviews with the cast so the show was always striving to best represent each person’s own truth. The show is so thoughtful without getting caught up in being overly deep or meaningful, it’s very genuine in this sense and I think that’s because so much work has gone into making space for each person up on the stage and the story they have to tell.
From that opening curtain onwards, Dancing Bear is a journey. It’s not a happy-go-lucky coming out story, although it is about personal empowerment and growth. It starts with coming out and the excitement of discovering the Gay Scene, but also what comes after that. Tackling huge issues on the cutting edge of contemporary society by juxtaposing needlessly contentious debates like feminists and trans women, Bible passages and Gays, Drag and mental health – Dancing Bear manages to be intellectual and not emotionally draining in the slightest.
The LGBTQ+ community will love Dancing Bear because it deftly handles so much more than what other LGBTQ+ shows that have come before have only had chance to scratch the surface of. Those who don’t identify will love it because no one will come away without having a true insight into the community and an education on how we can all be better LGBTQ+ Allies. To top it off there are great show tunes, heartfelt melodies and some of the most stunning harmonies I’ve seen on that stage for a long time!
The Bear (played by mesmerising Mike Williams) serves as a metaphor for someone not wanting to play along to convention anymore and become who they really are. There are moments in Dancing Bear that will make you cry and there are moments that will make you cry out laughing, ‘Do you think Drag years are like dog years?!’ but they are balanced perfectly, showing the hard-work and three year journey Dancing Bear has been in the making to open up conversations between the Christian and the LGBTQ+ communities.