Published in the Guardian Edinburgh Fringe preview
THERE comes a point in every electro-popster's life when the call of the theatre becomes too great to ignore. It happened to the Pet Shop Boyswhen they collaborated with Jonathan Harvey on Closer to Heaven in 2001. It happened to Marc Almond when he teamed up with Mark Ravenhill for Ten Plagues in 2011. And now it's happened to Andy Bell, the golden voice of Erasure, who is hitting the Edinburgh fringe with a theatrical song-cycle written by Barney Ashton-Bullock.
According to the show's Facebook page, Torsten the Bareback Saint is a piece of "sub-operatic theatrical cabaret pop/performance art", in which Bell plays a semi-immortal, pansexual troubadour who is only 42, despite being born in 1905. "He's going round and round, but he doesn't feel trapped," says the singer. "He's still a flirt."
It all sounds very Dorian Gray but, despite having turned 50 earlier this year, Bell regards the show not as a symptom of a midlife crisis but as one more project in a prolific and open-ended musical career. "I'm doing it to keep myself interested," he says. "You can't possibly think you're going to maintain any of that popsy superficiality. That's for young people. You have to diversify and find other interests."
He adds: "Fifty's quite a good age because it's kind of in the middle. Within a human lifetime, it could seem like you've been here forever, but if feels like you've got quite a long way to go as well. I've got a lovely life at the moment, so I'm looking forward to at least the next 30 years."
Bell slips into an anecdote involving STDs, false teeth and an orgy in a nursing home – an indication that age is no barrier to a colourful sex life.
Rather than mourning a lost youth, he prefers to dream about a future of supernatural reinvention. "One time I had a psychic experience, which is going to sound mad, but I was hoping in my heart of hearts to be able to see fairies. All of a sudden, I started seeing these dark shapes coming up out of the ground. I feel like it's another level of consciousness. They're completely metamorphic and they just change all the time. They're never in one form. Maybe that's where humans are heading."
When it comes to theatre, Bell remembers seeing Alan Cumming in the original run of Cabaret; he enjoyed Jonathan Pryce in Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? and, inadvertently, has seen Phantom of the Opera three times. His greatest theatrical influence, however, comes from the alternative cabaret scene.
"My bravado came from drag queens," says Bell. "During the homophobic mid-80s, I used to feel my drag was a protective shield. I'd go on and say: 'Here I am – if there's anything you want to say, say it now.' I suppose I was the teddy-bear version of that."
The 22 songs of Torsten the Bareback Saint, illustrated by Ashton-Bullock's monochrome videos, will take Bell into uncharted emotional territory as he plays a man who remains eternally young while his lovers come and go. "The songs are something Erasure would never write, because they're so raw," he says. "I'm not violent, I've only hit two people in my life and they both wore glasses, but Torsten gives me a vent to show some of that aggression."