Silk Street Theatre, Barbican, London (****)

© Michael Conti

© Michael Conti

Peggy Shaw’s last show in London, MUST was at Soho Theatre in May 2010. Give or take a few details (now she looks even more like Sean Penn), RUFF bears an uncanny resemblance to it.

Which is a miracle. Four and a half years ago Shaw suffered a stroke. And the wonder of seeing Peggy, sardonic and charismatic as ever, is that she is back. If inevitably she is forced to accommodate herself to medical realities with auto-cue and the occasional long pause, well, that only adds to the mix.

For nearly four decades, Shaw with Lois Weaver formed the legendary lesbian duo, Split Britches, Shaw supplying the `butch’, male counterpart to Weaver’s ultra `femme’.

© Lee Wexler

© Lee Wexler

But Shaw’s persona has always had a particular pull on the public imagination. Her frame may be bulkier now, her walking less sure. But her capacity to use her own body as a map on which to tell not just her history but produce universal common denominators remains undimmed.

If MUST was about love, desire and memories our bodies retain, RUFF equally is about loss of memory but still things the body tells us to which we should pay due attention. Shockingly, at one point, she feels herself inhabited by a beloved dead sister, Norma and when eventually, ghost exorcised, she confesses to feeling `released’, it’s a mixed blessing: a loss of something she never even knew she needed.

A pioneer still, it’s a show that often threatens to go off the rails but stays fully on by virtue of Shaw’s artistry, wit and wisdom.

One moment she’s describing the malfunctions of her brain, the next belting out a version of Jacques Brel’s Jacky, lip-synching to Leonard Cohen singing, `I’m Your Man’ or her very own stroke-adapted version of the Hokey Cokey.

Ever open to self-deprecation, Shaw has a very funny riff about coming out of hospital after the stroke, `a straight white guy, only able to do one thing at a time, with a ready support system’.

© Michael Conti

© Michael Conti

In the end, as I wrote in 2010, `its beauty lies as much in her inimitable persona as it does in the musical and visual architecture with which Willson (in this case Weaver) cleverly embellishes her special story.’

Welcome back, Peggy!

Ruff was at the Barbican from April 14-16, 2016

Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2016