"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” chant the entire cast at the finale of this endearing play with music. But the ‘girls’ also work hard. For six days a week, five gay Filipino immigrants care for elderly Jewish men in Tel Aviv. But on the seventh, they let their hair down, put on their make-up, their home-made frocks fashioned from Israeli newspapers (‘Haaretz’ for the weaving, ‘Maariv’ for the pictures and ‘The Gay Paper’ for colour), and turn into a semi-slick drag act, aka the Paper Dolls!
Paper Dolls is based on a prize-winning documentary film of the same name, which itself was based on a six-part documentary for Israeli TV and follows the attempts of the eponymous Paper Dolls to become the Spice Girls of the drag world. Philip Himberg’s play also touches upon immigration, politics, religion, relationships, human values and the universal need for identity, acceptance, family and, above all, home. There are many threads, but none of them are satisfactorily dealt with. Himberg’s play, though well-meaning, bites off more than it can chew.
The work is at its strongest when it focuses on the relationship between Sally, a spiritual and deeply-caring individual, and his employer Chaim, an intellectual liberal and an immigrant himself, having come from Romania before the founding of Israel. He is suffering from throat cancer and frequently resorts to expressing his thoughts on paper, though this is often superfluous as, after seven years, Sally’s understanding of the elderly man is almost telepathic. The relationship is threatened when Chaim’s only daughter returns for a visit from New York and wishes to uproot her father to America. “To be with family,” she argues, “this is what has to be.” “Chaim - he is my family too”, responds Sally.
The uncertainty of living in a foreign land is pervasive. The security of the Dolls is not to be taken for granted, lasting as long as they are employed or as long as their employers live. The bond between Sally and Chaim is genuine and hard-earned, but once the latter succumbs to cancer, it also marks the end for Sally. Friends they may have become, but never family.
As immigrants, the Dollls will always remain outsiders and easily disposable, with the threat of deportation never far away. Yet, on the surface at least, the girls are accepted and feel freer to express themselves in Tel Aviv than in their homeland. “You know, Yossi,” states Zhan “we couldn’t dress like this in the Philipines… wear earrings, dye my hair, put on make-up, lipstick. It’s forbidden.”
Paper Dolls highlights a contrast, rather than a clash of cultures. Youthful, overtly gay cross-dressers with their elderly and ailing orthodox patients - though as Chiqui astutely notes, pointing to the Hasidic Jew in his care, “they wear the costumes”. Despite parading in sleazy nightclubs, the Dolls remain devoutly Catholic, praying to God and the Virgin Mary before each performance. We are shown that despite the differences, there are shared values of family, faith and friendship. Like most of characters, at its heart, this is a very tender and caring play.
Paper Dolls is interspersed with musical numbers, from joyful renditions of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ to moving interpretations of ‘Hava Nagila’ and the Israeli national anthem ‘Hatikvah’. There is no pretence that the Paper Dolls are a world-class cabaret act – they are portrayed as amateurs - their act more well-intended than well-performed. But, like their dreams for their future, they sing and dance with heart and hope.
This world première at the Tricycle Theatre has just been extended to 28 April. This small (235 seats) theatre in NW6 is proving to be a real gem. Paper Dolls follows hot on the tail of the recent and much-lauded Red Velvet, Indhu Rubasingham’s first production as Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre. “When I started here my mission was to provide different lenses to the world – hearing the unheard voice.” states Rubasingham. With Paper Dolls, she bravely attempts to fulfill this brief: “Human connections are made despite the vast differences in culture, religion and sexuality.” It is doubtful that this production will win any awards, but it nevertheless offers an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking evening.
The Jewish characters are generally less defined than the Dolls, but nevertheless Tom Berish impresses as Yossi, the documentary film-maker, Harry Dickman is convincing as Chaim, and Caroline Wildi excels as his expat daughter Adina.
There are convincing performances from all the Dolls - Angelo Paragoso as Zhan, Benjamin Wong as Cheska, Ron Domingo and Jon Norman Schneider as the fractious brothers Chiqui and Jiorgio. But special praise must be reserved for Francis Jue for his pivotal and heartfelt portrayal of Sally (Salvador) Camatoy, to whom Paper Dolls is posthumously dedicated.