Based on Israeli director Tomer Heymann’s 2006 documentary, Paper Dolls tells the true story of five Filipino men who find work in Tel Aviv looking after elderly Orthodox Jews. While the immigrants spend six days of their working week as carers, the seventh sees the quintet transform into a flamboyant drag act called Paper Dolls.
Adapted for the stage by Philip Himberg, whose encounter with the Tricycle theatre’s Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham at the Sundance Theatre Programme in Utah brought his stage adaptation across the Atlantic to the hustle and bustle of Kilburn High Road, Paper Dolls intersperses the men’s colourful performances as over-the-top drag queens with moments of deep human connection as the five immigrants try to forge new lives in the Israeli city.
Documented by Himberg’s invented character Yossi – a reflection of Heymann and his five-year project – whose on stage camera footage appears as projections on Richard Kent’s monochrome set, the relationship displayed between the group of transsexuals has all the warmth, understanding and inevitable bickering of a supportive family.
Ron Domingo plays the mother of the group as band manager Chiqui, while his younger brother Jiorgio, whose unrelenting determination to get his own way sees him snatch the attention from his fellow band members with skimpy outfits and crude appendages, is played with all the attitude of an unruly teenager by Jon Norman Schneider.
Angelo Paragoso’s Zhan is the butt of all jokes as the token chubby member of the group, while Benjamin Wong’s Cheska exudes vulnerability as he becomes separated from the Dolls’ close-knit family following his unemployment and subsequent deportment.
The play’s most tender moments are those shared by Francis Jue’s caring and affectionate Sally and her cancer-suffering employer Chaim, with whom she has forged a deep connection during the seven years she has cared for him; the bond forged between two individuals of such contrasting personalities and cultures providing a touching and subtle display of human connection and social acceptance against the tacky glamour of the group’s alternative lives.
Donning outfits made of old newsprint, the Dolls tackle a host of well-loved karaoke numbers, including Venus, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Turning Japanese, Lady Marmalade, Grace Kelly and their own version of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side with specially adapted lyrics, affording a vivid contrast to traditional songs such as Oseh Shalom and Hatikva, which complete the show’s memorable score.
While the production offers more cheese than the deli counter in Waitrose, giving the Dolls’ performances an amateur feel, this is undoubtedly intentional; these men were never destined to become the next big thing, they merely have a dream of being accepted as who they are: the Paper Dolls.