American performers have been excelling with autobiographical, character theatre pieces in the past few Fringes (see last year’s The Money Fish or Drunk Lion from 2014). Ellyn Daniels‘ tale of her multiple careers (ballet dancer, model, actress, comedian) is another great advert for the format and for theatrical standards across the Atlantic, but the self-centric nature of the piece also limits it.
The show’s timeline begins with Daniels’ teenage dreams of ballet stardom. She then takes us on a grand tour of foreign trips and sexual misadventure with inappropriate older men, all the while searching for her true vocation. We meet fellow models, casting couch creeps and friendly porn-stars, and get the unexpurgated details about her eating disorder, STI, and bathroom misdemeanour with a friend’s boyfriend.
It’s superbly performed, as you might expect from one of her training. Daniels brings a dancer’s grace of movement to everything she does on stage, up to and including the graphic re-enactments of sexual encounters. There’s good characterisation too, glimpses of the stand-up comedy she’s latterly taken up and an intense final scene which bring home how much of herself she’s poured into this.
A question mark hangs over the tonal choice though. Content doesn’t suit delivery. She’s enormously frank about everything, to the point of unpleasant sexual admission. And her hardships are either self-inflicted (bad sexual choices) or familiar consequences of the industries in which she has chosen to work (rejections). Yet it’s not played as showbizzy expose, “confessions of the casting couch”, it’s played as heartstring tugging personal journey. We’re being invited to treat the bodily pursuits and career worries of the showbiz set with an empathy usually reserved for those who’ve had real adversity visited on them by some external force. At the most basic level: trips to Paris, modelling assignments in Togo, parties in Hollywood? It’s hard for us ordinary mortals to connect.
The pain Daniels ultimately expresses is real and deeply-felt, and she performs her story vibrantly, but the insularity of it can isolate the viewer.