Tuesday 19th September 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse
‘Do you know…’ says Kate O’Donnell, throughout You’ve Changed, a Trans Creative and Contact co-production. In fact, so often does this line appear that you begin to feel that you simultaneously have no clue while also being acutely aware that you are gaining a great wealth of knowledge… It offers a friendly branch from the first line to the last, drawing you in to her private stories and confidences, but it also offers more than that. You might turn up to this show feeling pretty clued up about transitioning; the process; the costs; the accompanying personal strain, but you likely don’t have the experience of listening to someone who has lived every stage of that process to give you a unique and scathingly uncensored insight. It’s an incredibly raw show and O’Donnell offers a darkly comic insight into the experience of transitioning in 2003 and the many experiences of note thereafter.
You’ve Changed seems to primarily be a reflection on her transition, but it is also a challenge to those attending: what are you doing about broadening your horizons to learn about the lives of others without shifting the responsibility, expecting others to explain themselves to you? Are your notions of gender and identity outdated and ill-informed? Is it time to make a change to your mindset?
Perhaps the greatest strength of this production is the way in which Kate O’Donnell presents herself; approachable, with a wry smile frequently displayed and full of self confidence and a devil may care attitude which dismisses those she has come to learn don’t actually matter. The honesty is fearless and the wisdom is warm. The revelations are both literal and abstract and the creation of an atmosphere of easy confidence combined with belly laughs make this a special kind of show. O’Donnell educates, without a doubt, but she also entertains with brutally honest commentaries on the stages of transitioning, the people met and the lines crossed by complete strangers. She begins her tale from childhood, mentioning a terrible family background as a backdrop to a relatively unsupported process of recognition and transitioning.
Opening with a song gentle in tone but playful and cutting in nature works well, even though it does take a moment to warm up. Music is used throughout the production and the subtle playing of 1930s tunes even before the show begins as well as during certainly adds a charm and a thematic base for the various monologues O’Donnell delivers about transitioning at a time which smacked of the 1930s when it came to notions of gender and gender reassignment. The few sung songs to make an appearance are a little clunky but they do add variety to the piece, as well as providing excellent opportunities for displaying the wit and intelligence of the writing.
This show was always going to be highly personal in nature, though nothing quite prepares you for the real sheets of paper from ‘The Museum of Me’ documenting the transition process in ‘the dark ages’ as O’Donnell describes them; she harpoons the lack of support and the 1930s approach to concepts of gender but always with a punchline which doesn’t detract from the force of the sledgehammer. Perhaps the most shocking for me was the snapshot of the so-called medical form that O’Donnell was advised to carry at all times. Said form somewhat took the role of a parental note sent to excuse some sort of behviour along the lines of missing homework or PE kit. To be shown this scrap of paper excusing and justifying the appearance of a grown adult in 2003 to ‘whom it may concern’ leaves me incredulous even now. Such small touches are powerful in their simplicity and brilliantly shine a light on how transgender people have been treated in recent years.
At one point, O’Donnell disappears behind a screen to strip down and go to town on the double standards and shocking treatment of transgender individuals. I cringe at using the word brave; O’Donnell herself dismisses it with a grimace as one of the many imbecilic responses to the big reveal of identifying as transgender. Yet brave is most definitely a word necessary to appreciate just what I takes to bare all on stage. What O’Donnell does to combat the awkwardness of the moment is precisely what she does best in this show: she draws us into the experience of discomfort and takes no prisoners when highlighting the trials, tribulations and comic asides along the road of gender reassignment. The inclusion of an unsuspecting audience member to provide questions allowed the comedy and the education to reach new heights; to be put in the position of discussing sexual organs without warning, amongst strangers is an inspired way to have an audience experience the lives of others in a significant way.
You’ve Changed is a brilliant, unique show. Joined only by a well dressed stage hand who becomes dance partner and dresser in turn, O’Donnell captivates with ease. Her warmth and charm towards us as her listeners is dotted with flashes of incredulity at her experiences, but the overriding presence in this piece is the humour. She invites confidence and connection with the audience while also encouraging them to be more interrogative and reflective about themselves; four mirrors towards the close of the performance take this from an invitation to an enforced exercise in fact. Laying bare the realities of such a huge life changing process in a time when the label didn’t matter much as long as it was said in hushed tones while an individual tried with all their might to ‘pass’ is sobering to say the least. But everything, no matter how heavy or playful, is delivered with a punch line, be that a foul mouthed irreverent dismissal of the ineptitude of the past or something altogether lighter and more gentle, like word play or just a look. You’ve Changed is a uniquely inspiring show, championing self-discovery and challenging all the bullshit thrown in the direction of a minority while demanding that we all take a look at ourselves in the light of what we’ve seen. It is a show definitely well worth seeing if you get the chance.
Trans Creative’s You’ve Changed tours until December 1st and you can find more details and tickets here.