Entertainment & Arts

Paper Dolls' double life as carers and drag queens

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Media captionArtistic director of The Tricycle Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham and actor Francis Jue on the evolution of Paper Dolls from screen to stage

Paper Dolls is a new play with music at the Tricycle Theatre in London. Based on an Israeli film documentary, it is about a group of gay Filipino men who make their living as care assistants in Tel Aviv but who also perform in clubs as drag queens.

As if the subject of Paper Dolls weren't exotic enough, its world premiere in London came about through a chance encounter at the Sundance Theatre Programme in Utah.

The director Indhu Rubasingham was working at this theatrical offshoot of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute when she got talking to the man who runs it, Philip Himberg.

He described a long-term project of his own, based on the Israeli documentary Paper Dolls. Rubasingham was gripped by what she heard.

Taking over the 235-seat Tricycle Theatre last May she knew she wanted Paper Dolls in her first season.

"When I started here my mission was to provide different lenses to the world - hearing the unheard voice.

"What's fantastic about Philip's play is the cultural clash of two very different worlds - the conservative men of the Orthodox Jewish world and the group of gay, cross-dressing Filipinos who look after them.

Image caption Tom Berish (right) stars as the original Paper Dolls documentary maker

"Human connections are made despite the vast differences in culture, religion and sexuality," says Rubasingham.

Originally Paper Dolls was a six-part documentary for Israeli TV, directed by Tomer Heymann.

Its focus was a small group of Filipinos employed as carers for men of the Hassidic branch of Judaism. Most of the men were frail with age.

In 2006 the TV series was re-edited as a 90-minute film which became a hit on the festival circuit. It was this version Himberg saw in Los Angeles.

He worked intermittently on a stage adaptation but things really moved on when Rubasingham invited him to swap the mountain air of Utah for the grime of Kilburn High Road.

Rubasingham says the creative team allowed itself to diverge from the original film.

One early idea had been to turn Paper Dolls into a full-scale musical with a new score but what has emerged is a play using a selection of well-known pop songs.

Numbers in the enjoyably over-the-top Tel Aviv club sequences include Walk On The Wild Side, Bananarama's Venus and Turning Japanese by the Vapors.

American actor Jon Norman Schneider, playing drag queen Jiorgio, says it is a challenge to pitch performances at the right level each evening.

Image caption Francis Jue plays Sally, a live-in carer and part-time drag queen

"These are not supposed to be the greatest stage performers ever. It's not meant to be some amazing Las Vegas spectacular.

"At times there needs to be a slightly amateur feel to what the Paper Dolls do but of course we also want audiences to enjoy themselves," says Schneider.

Angelo Paragoso was born in Manila and originally came to Europe to play in the musical Miss Saigon.

"Indhu [Rubasingham] and Philip [Himberg] have been tweaking to make the show work here in London and we've evolved a lot from the original," he says.

"Underneath all the fun and the music numbers the show's also about identity and acceptance.

"It says no matter what you look like you're still a human being. And if you don't find acceptance in wider society you can still find it in a constructed family of your own," says Paragoso.

English actor Ilan Goodman plays the sleazy and exploitative club owner Nazari. He says he enjoys watching the drag queens' performances.

"What really sells the show and what's so moving is the sheer joy of the Dolls on stage. We see them as underdogs struggling to survive in a way which makes them happy. They're all sympathetic characters," says Goodman.

The play briefly mentions that four of the six real-life Dolls ultimately left Israel to work in London.

Image caption The play explores the relationship between Chaim (centre) and his Paper Doll carer Sally (left)

Though the show has moved a long way from their stories they saw an early performance and expressed approval.

Another of the Dolls went back to the Philippines while Sally - who was the dominant character in the original documentary with a heart-warming relationship with an elderly employer - went to work in the United Arab Emirates. In 2007 Sally died in circumstances never fully explained.

Since the 1980s the Tricycle has built an impressive reputation for quality and innovation despite being one of London's smaller venues.

Paper Dolls features at least 20 different locations, which might defeat bigger and far wealthier theatres. Did Indhu Rubasingham ever worry she had taken on too much?

"This is a small, intimate space and it's a big, big play. But we gain from that too. In an intimate theatre you see the characters up close and audiences feel their narrative and they end up caring," she says.

Having dragged Paper Dolls across the Atlantic, is there now a chance Rubasingham may take the show elsewhere? Might it work Off-Broadway or in US regional theatre?

"At the moment all I care about is doing well at the Tricycle. What comes after that, we'll see."

Paper Dolls is on at London's Tricycle Theatre until 13 April.

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