In Tuesdays at Tesco’s, Emmanuel Darley’s brief but effective solo play, Simon Callow plays Pauline, a transgender woman whose Tuesdays are spent helping her elderly father around the house. She cleans for him, does his laundry and ironing, and also helps with his shopping, which they do together at the Tesco’s supermarket on his local high street.
When Pauline is living her day-to-day life in the city, she’s anonymous, but in her hometown, the reality of her transition from Paul, the young man everyone knew, to Pauline, has a different weight. She chooses which cashier’s line to join based on previous interactions, hoping to avoid minor embarrassments whenever possible despite the fact that it’s her own father whose acceptance she covets the most.
The play, adapted from the French by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande (its original title was Le Mardi a Monoprix after a chain of French stores), had its English-language premiere at Assembly Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and is currently in the midst of its U.S. premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.
Callow’s performance is a real triumph. Aside from casting a trans actress in the part, a better actor could scarce be found to embody this complicated woman. Callow, a boxy, masculine man, becomes Pauline with apparent ease, but it’s his ability to play Pauline’s father as well — taking on a husky, more Northern-inflected voice — that lends his performance added depth. Because Callow is tasked with the challenge of carrying the play by himself, his ability to embody that added element of conflict and tension is key to the play’s success.
Even before Callow takes to the stage, the set evokes an almost otherworldly space. There is a piano (and a live pianist, who adds to the mood of the play) set within a floating ring. At stage right is an ornate chair. Upstage is a tree and, in the tree, a bright pink dress. There are small stones downstage beneath the floating ring. The importance of the set, designed (along with Callow’s costume) by Robin Don, becomes more apparent by the evening’s end, once the events of the play are put into context.
To give much more away about Darley’s play would risk spoiling things. What’s most important here is Callow’s performance. It demands to be seen. Where some male actors might shy away from playing a woman, Callow isn’t afraid to embrace his feminine side.
In Pauline’s company, there is a certain warmth and a certain comfort — a sense of hope that all will be well for this woman for whom her new gender is itself a kind of comfort she finds solace in. When she experiences ridicule, we feel it acutely, and, at times, we sense that there’s a well of pain that lives behind her smile. We want her life to be all she hopes it to be, for her Tuesdays to be truly routine, as routine as she wants them to be.