Tuesday 11th June 2019 at Harrogate Theatre (Bar Space).
As with her last venture You’ve Changed, Kate O’Donnell delivers a show full of gently irreverent wit and great deeper significance with Hayley and Me. My shower of praise when it comes to stage presence and warmth still stand here and I found myself once again thinking how nice it would be to go for tea with O’Donnell and just shoot the breeze.
It’s this sense of ease and informality which is so winningly central to O’Donnell’s work and performance style. In Hayley and Me, she pokes fun at the hell-fire ride the wonderful anorak-clad Hayley Cropper (played by the brilliant Julie Hesmondhalgh) underwent at the hands of screenwriters for Coronation Street. Helped along by a little audience participation (we struck lucky with a real charmer at this performance) and playful illustrative cross-cutting of Spice Girls hits of course because, well, why not?
It’s not necessarily a tough task to find the comedy fodder in Cropper’s storylines: they are the stuff of soap melodrama overkill – but hey, it was the late nineties when she appeared on our screens…what am I saying? Soaps will always run riot with their plot lines! What is much more skilful here is the way O’Donnell balances the humour of Cropper’s narratives with the exploration of the extraordinary impact the first trans character on a hit show had at a time when being trans was much more precarious and widely misunderstood than it is now (though there are evidently miles and then some to go).
Cropper’s storylines punctuate O’Donnell’s own brief stories about parallel experiences and reflections. And O’Donnell points out a particularly key truth; despite the ludicrous plots, Corrie made the nation engage with a likeable trans character – to feel sympathy, connection and heartbreak as this mild mannered woman underwent betrayal, ridicule, rejection, trickery and ultimately a deeply tragic death (with more ridiculous elements of her life story including kidnapping and a variety of other shock tactic bylines). Groundbreaking stuff really.
Which brings us to what O’Donnell does best: championing change. The show is followed by a screening of the autobiographical short film MUM in which the experience of a trans woman’s frictions within the family unit is briefly explored. O’Donnell proudly points out that the young actors playing her younger self are all trans.
It’s a moment she takes to reiterate the importance of trans actors playing trans characters in a somewhat opportunist arts world which allows cis white males to monopolise the stories of minorities so in need of greater visibility and louder voices. If she has her way, we’ll see far more trans characters (played by trans actors) drinking tea and having a scandalous chinwag and far fewer trans characters left in grim peril with no tangible access to security and joy. Hear hear!
And as if O’Donnell wasn’t offering up enough with Hayley and Me and the short film screening, we’re also invited to a brief Q & A before which she insists she is open to all questions – her life post-career shift revolves around sharing her experiences for the greater good. This is what she does now, and long may she do so because whether it’s in the larger studio spaces or the intimate and informal setting of the theatre bar, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to see how O’Donnell crafts work which shares entertainment as much as it champions vital continued progress. She’s an inspiring force to be reckoned with and a very important candid voice.
Hayley and Me is commissioned by Pink Fringe and presented by Trans Creative. You can find out more about Trans Creative and various upcoming projects here.