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RoosevElvis review at the Royal Court, London – ‘idea-rich, but frustrating’

The Team's RoosevElvis at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Team's RoosevElvis at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

New York-based ensemble the Team like to pile their shows high as covered wagons, stacking ideas on top of ideas. Their dizzying 2011 show, Mission Drift, was a case in point, an atomic sunset of a production, full of thoughts about capitalism, the call of the road and the very nature of American storytelling, wreathed in Heather Christian’s smoky vocals.

Here, in RoosevElvis, the focus is tighter, the production more intimate – it’s a two-hander, a double act – but the thematic reach is still incredibly wide.

Ann, a shy woman who works in a meat processing plant and has never flown on a plane, goes on an abortive date with Brenda and ends up embarking on a journey into herself; her companions for this ride are Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt. They act as facets of her character but also as versions of themselves. Both are men of power and influence, heroes to many, played here in drag by Team members Libby King – who also plays Ann – and Kristen Sieh.

Both performers do an impressive job of shifting between registers, of approximating the iconic while humanising both men. There’s also a trace of vaudeville to the interplay between them: Teddy is clipped and patrician, Elvis more grounded.

There’s an incredible amount of stuff crammed in here, possibly too much. Gender is a key theme: the performance of masculinity. Physical strength is a big part of this; there’s a lot of boxing and playing with rowing machines. Sieh’s Roosevelt, in his buckskins and side-whiskers, is the weedy asthmatic kid who built himself up physically and intellectually; he prides himself on being able to discourse on anything while still being handy in a fight. King’s Elvis, meanwhile, the dirt poor farm boy who loved his momma, is fascinated with karate and enjoys the allure of the dress-up box: the dragon-emblazoned dressing gowns, the aviator shades. But privilege ends up being just as big a part of their story: the places where they came from, their parents, their backgrounds, shape these men.

The collage approach to theatre-making of Rachel Chavkin and her company can feel over-complicated; there are occasions when the production hops about like a bird and you wish it would stand still. But it’s such an idea-rich, questing production this is forgivable.

Taking place against a landscape of diners, gas stations and blue motels, it’s a mixture of buddy movie, American history lesson and coming-of-age narrative in which the person coming of age is a 35-year-old queer woman – something which is joyous in and of itself.

It’s frustrating in places and, perhaps primarily an intellectual exercise more than an emotional one, but it’s the kind of thing that continues to unspool long after you’ve finished watching.

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Idea-packed two-hander exploring gender and American iconography