Cliché vies with complexity in ‘Paper Dolls’, Philip Himberg’s play with songs, freely adapted from a 2006 documentary from Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann.
In this archetypal band story about a very atypical band, the Paper Dolls are five Filipino immigrants living in Tel Aviv. By day, they live with and care for elderly Jewish men – jobs on which their visas depend. By night, they become a tight-knit family of drag queens, performing in the city’s gay clubs.
It raises an extraordinary set of identity politics. The Dolls are Hebrew-speaking Filipino Christians, well-versed in Jewish practices. Moreover, they’re transgender in an orthodox society that restricts contact between men and women.
Yet Himberg also treats his singular characters as tropes: there’s the shot at the big time that comes at a cost; there’s the reckless member whose behaviour endangers the others. We know just where we’re heading throughout and, sprinkled with pop songs that chime thematically (‘Venus,’ ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’), ‘Paper Dolls’ veers very close to naff sentimentality. With Richard Kent’s cumbersome revolving set, Indhu Rubasingham’s production feels like its waving rather flagrantly at the West End.
In the end, though, the heart-swelling message of tolerance and togetherness wins out and, thanks to the prepossessing gusto of the Paper Dolls themselves, you can’t help but give in. Matt Trueman