Transgender representation on stage: “Our stories need to be heard loud and clear”

Doctor Dolittle star Adèle Anderson discusses trans representation in theatre



Gender-blind casting has been with us for a while now: Glenda Jackson’s Lear, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, Harriet Walter’s Henry IV, Fiona Shaw’s Richard II. 


It’s not just the women. Forget Mary Sunshine in Chicago, who reveals herself to be male at the end. Think of Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan and the late Danny la Rue as Dolly Levi. 


Sometimes the gender switch is acknowledged. Tamsin Greig played Malvolia, not Malvolio and Sinead Cusack, although called Kent most of the time, was referred to as My Lady when necessary.


I have been lucky enough to recently become the recipient of not one, but two gender swap roles. The characters of General Bellowes and Bent Arrow, both sworn enemies of Dr Dolittle, have become Lady Bellowes and Poison Arrow in this latest production, starring Mark Williams as the eponymous doctor. The fact that I am a transgender actress has had no bearing on this decision. Leslie Bricusse and the director, Christopher Renshaw, decided that the script needed updating and this was just one of several changes made. Even some of the animals have been “regendered”.


Adèle plays Lady Bellowes and Poison Arrow in a new production of Doctor Dolittle


Although every TV role I have played has been transgender – I believe I was the first trans actor to play a trans character on TV, in the BBC One series Fish in 2000 – I have not always played such parts on stage. I did play the Baron de Charlus in a musical about Proust and Count Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, but the latter is traditionally sung by a woman and, in the Proust musical I also played the Duchesse de Guermantes. I’ve portrayed a mother in Salad Days, a mother/demigoddess in Achilles In Heels, a stepmother in Into The Woods, a star (Carlotta) in Follies, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Isadora Duncan and a disembodied voice in Steve Martin’s WASP.


Transgender characters have only recently been seen on stage with any regularity. Many years ago, Amanda Boxer played a trans woman, wearing a scarf to hide her (non-existent) adam’s apple in a play at the New End theatre. If memory serves me correctly, her boyfriend threw up when he discovered her horrible secret and, later, committed suicide because of the shame he felt at having loved her. 


Things have come a long way since then. Paul Lucas’ Transcripts had trans people’s stories told by trans actors. Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Summer In London had an entire cast of trans actors, some playing cisgender roles. Rebecca Root, who was in Transcripts, has just played a trans character in Rathmines Road for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. She is conquering the worlds of stage, TV and cinema.


As trans people increasingly come under attack from the media, TERFs and presidents, it is even more important than ever that our stories are heard, loud and clear. But, for the time being, I must leave that to others, as I tour the UK, bellowing at the good doctor.


Doctor Dolittle opens at the Churchill Theatre Bromley on 9 November before touring nationally. Please visit for more information.


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