This picture was taken by leading theatre photographer Geraint Lewis on the first night of Penny Arcade’s end-of-Fringe Edinburgh sensation Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! late August 1993. A picture he took a few moments later appeared the following day in an article in The Independent.
That's me, second from right
After years of nudging by me, Geraint dug out the surviving print and sent me a copy. It was taken on-stage in the Supper Room of the world famous Assembly Rooms on George Street in Scotland’s capital city.
The figure standing in the middle background of the main picture is my 31-year old self. If I look bewildered, stood there in M&S undies and Caterpillar boots, it’s because I was. It was the last place I expected to be when I woke up that morning.
Earlier that day I had been in the old Blue Moon Café, where a journalist friend of mine Aaron Hicklin was standing next to my table interviewing an American lady who sounded like Joan Rivers-meets-Ruby Wax. She had a packet of cigarettes stuffed in her coat pocket, so I lifted them out, took one and lit it (in a café. Younger readers, this is how your ancestors lived). The lady turned and glared at me: ‘Did you just take a cigarette from my pocket? You wanna dance in my show tonight? One of my dancers was stopped going though Immigration at Edinboro Airport. Stoopid girl showed them the flyers for the show so they put her right on a ‘plane home. I told them all, if you get stopped you are not here to work, you’re on vacation. You can dance, right?’
I said, ‘Well, sort of. What is it – tap?’
‘I use erotic go-go dancers. You ever done anything like that before?’
‘Well just show up at seven and ask for me. Bring something you feel comfortable in. You got a g-string?’
‘Well, one of the guys can lend you one. Just show up at the Assembly Rooms at seven. The boys will show you what to do.’
That was it – I was a go-go dancer. In fact, I was at a very loose end having finished my festival a week early, while the whole thing was in full swing. I had been in a Fringe First Award-winning show, One Moment, an improvised drama devised by Jeremy Weller (Grassmarket Project Theatre Company) all about an uprising in an Old People’s Home.I jumped at the opportunity.
The most comfortable things I had to wear were my M&S pants and pyjamas so I brought them. I had absolutely no idea what the show was about or what would be expected of me and I was frightened. But I remembered Quentin Crisp’s advice: ‘Never say “No” to anything. Or you will be left with nothing except your anonymity.”
When I arrived in the foyer of the Assembly Rooms, it was clear whom I needed to speak to: two gorgeous studs on roller blades were holding court at the foot of the grand staircase, surrounded by whey-faced admirers. I tapped one on the shoulder. ‘Are you with Penny Arcade’s show? She told me to show up here with something comfortable and that you would lend me a g-string.’
The God-like creature looked troubled. ‘Wait. You mean, Penny’s asked you to dance in the show tonight?’ Turning to the other stud: ‘Did Penny tell you anything about this? Me neither. I really wish she would let us know. This used to happen all the time during the run in New York. What did you bring? Pyjamas?! Well, I guess you could strip out of them, but it will be Penny’s decision. No, we all have our own g-strings, it’s kind of icky to lend them out. If you don’t have your own, the underwear will do. I’m Lindel, by the way.’ Lindel was the 'Dance Captain' of the show, a term I had never heard until then.
I was then led backstage to what would in later years become a very familiar dressing room, next to the Gents behind the Supper Room. There in a tangle of spangled dresses, posing pouches, boas and basques were my all-but naked fellow performers, all fit, gorgeous and exuding the professionalism and confidence one associates with American artistes. I was amazed they even let me in the room, let alone talked to me. I felt badly out-of-place but Lindel gave me a quick run-down of what was about to happen.
‘Okay, so before they open the house, we get onto our stations around the room – you’ll be on the podium at the stage left front, right by the front row. When the music starts, you begin dancing; the doors will open at the back and the audience starts coming in. Do a gradual strip down to your… what are you wearing, white briefs? Okay. Well watch us and go at the same pace. When you see the dancers move to the next station, do the same and just keep it going till Penny comes out for her first monologue. Soon as you see her, out the door and get ready for the next one. In that one, we dance until Penny speaks and as soon as she speaks, freeze.’ [The photo shows a moment from this monologue, a very moving and angry one about the friends Penny had lost to AIDS]. Then I do a bit with the red sequined dress, which usually gets a good round of applause. Then we go into the audience and get people up to dance… The basic rules are Don’t Talk To The Audience and Don’t Show Your Dick or Asshole.’
My head was spinning but within moments I was on my podium, dressed in my day clothes. The other dancers stood in their allotted spots, limbering up, looking like they knew what they were doing. The music started. I began to do my best to look sexy, to move as unselfconsciously to the beat as I could, feeling like a complete fraud.
Then I looked down and there at my feet was Penny Arcade resplendent in a ravishing red-sequined dress, the first time I had seen her since I met her in the café. ‘Go on,’ she hissed. ‘Surprise yourself!’
That is a fantastic piece of advice for an inexperienced and nervous performer. And it worked. As the doors at the back swung open, a huge crowd surged in dotted with the faces of many people I recognized from Edinburgh outwith the festival, all of them agape with astonishment to see me up there, bumping and grinding like Gypsy Rose Lee and peeling down to my knickers like a huzzy. I started to enjoy myself.
The whole thing passed like a dream – very much like a dream in fact, one of those ones where you find yourself dancing naked on stage in front of an audience of people who know you. The dream continued after the performance was over. I spent the night with the entire company, who were living in a large room somewhere in Leith, all mattresses and make-shift hammocks. Two months later I was living with Lindel in New York City. We had a four year relationship. It ended but we are friends and have a shared memory, captured in Geraint’s remarkable picture, of an incredible night in our lives and of the incredible woman who made it all happen.
There is an added poignancy to this picture and the ones that follow, since it was recently announced that the City of Edinburgh is to ‘refurbish’ the Assembly Rooms, meaning the end of its history as one the leading Edinburgh Fringe venues. Gone will be the annually-converted theatre spaces which hosted an incredible array of performances for three decades. Visitors during August will now be treated to ‘retail units’ housing ‘craft fairs’ (yuk!) and the dear old Supper Room will now be just another restaurant.
Read the Council’s vindictive press release here.
Geraint took pictures of me on the same stage more recently:
David Benson Sings Noel Coward (with Stewart Nicholls) 2008
Dr. Whom? My Search For Samuel Johnson 2009
All photos used in this article are by Geraint Lewis