With no real set to speak of, no costumes other than the gloriously glitzy sequinned coat already owned by the remarkable man on stage, and a playwright onstage in place of an actor, A Life In Three Acts is a unique piece of theatre.
Sitting in front of an overhead projector on two white chairs with an IKEA flat pack coffee table in between them, playwright Mark Ravenhill and legendary performer Bette Bourne present an edited version of the account of Bourne’s life told to Ravenhill in a series of conversations in the actor’s Notting Hill flat.
From a childhood in the shadow of air raids and gas masks in the Second World War, to violent fathers, amateur dramatics, bike sheds and dreams of playing the Old Vic, Bourne grew up to not only grace that stage but to live an incredible, colourful life no one would have imagined could be possible in black and white 1950s England.
With the arrival of the revolutionary 1970s, Bourne’s story comes alive as he tells Ravenhill of gay liberation front meetings, the feeling of first wearing a dress, living in a drag queen commune, love affairs and romantic disasters, and the eventual formation of Bourne’s ground-breaking Bloolips company.
Conducted as an interview, Ravenhill asks questions which Bourne then answers in an engaging and often humorous style, led by the script he has propped up in front of him on a music stand. Images from Bourne’s life are flashed up on the projector behind and sound clips, from his mother singing to previous stage roles, are played as Bourne pretends to be hearing and seeing them for the first time.
While the audience are aware that Ravenhill is fully aware of Bourne’s remarkable story and Bourne is not in fact shocked by the photo that appears on the screen, the fondness between the two men is startlingly apparent and Bourne’s story so engrossing that the ruse never becomes a problem.
Fiercely passionate and bluntly honest, Bourne’s tale is full of optimism and celebration, only hinting at the struggles and prejudices he and other gay men and women experienced. But moments of anger and sadness do pepper the otherwise fantastical life he tells Ravenhill of, the arrival of AIDS and subsequent death and suffering he had to witness described in a heartbreakingly tender account.
Bourne and Ravenhill may look like an unlikely pair – one glamorously holding court, the other scruffy and slightly uncomfortable – but their unspoken shared experiences and obvious fondness for one another utterly immerses you in their sometimes hilarious and sometimes downright heart breaking exchange.