The Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London. Written and directed by Simon Gross and John More
Gentlemen, what are we to make of drag?
I was recently at the “Gay Museum” in Berlin and at the climax of the exhibition, after the extraordinary stories of our predecessors' struggle for respect and freedom from persecution, was a DVD of some old drag queen tunelessly belting out Send in the Clowns.
“This is what it's all been leading up to” it seemed to be saying: millions died in concentration camps so men could openly dress up in frocks and sing anthems - badly.
Why is the need to do this so central to gay culture? And what exactly are we watching? It's not female impersonation (these guys aren’t pretending to be real women). It's seldom a statement about transgender identity (these guys usually don't want to be real women) and real singing, dancing and comic skills are optional but drag queens have also been some of the most radical campaigners for gay rights and fought bravely on the front line at times like the Stonewall riots in new York.
When the drag divas are as fantastic as they are in this late night show, briefly at the Arts theatre, it’s easy to see why their presence in our midst has always been so cherished; even if it’s harder to rationalise.
On Friday night the theatre was sweltering, almost unbearably hot yet the MC here, Mrs. More, was such a great and filthy comic that she soon had the audience whipped up into a party mood. It was a great crowd; the folk in the front row were in to see their son as one of the sexy male dancers, and having a whale of a time (Junior, you’ve got some way to go before you’re as sexy as your dad! But I digress...) Everyone: young, old, gay and straight, was having a fantastic time. At one point “Dusty Springfield’s” mic failed and the audience was so supportive that they all joined in to help her out. By the end of the 60 minute show, the whole place was on its feet, dancing and singing along in the tropical heat.
These performers really can sing and dance. I dreaded having to apply some kind of critical perspective to people miming in frocks but everything was delivered live to backing tracks and I found myself swept along by the gloriously tatty glamour of the evening.
Against an old red slash curtain, left over from Naked Boys Singing at this venue, the Divas executed an extraordinary number of amazing quick changes in the cramped wing space - imagine trying to quickly peel elaborate costumes on an off in sauna-like conditions - and appeared in a non-stop parade of fantastic frocks to pastiche some of the great female performers of the last 50 years.
Rob Tucker has a phenomenal belty voice, sending his outsized impersonations of stars like Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey booming out to Leicester Square; Chris Dennis climaxes his selection of tributes with a well polished Liza Minnelli taking full advantage of that singers show stopping material; Leo Loren brings a mischievous, anarchic feel to send-ups of more contemporary artists like Amy Winehouse and Anthony Page makes a genuinely beautiful woman with a devilish wit. One of the comic highlights for me was his dead pan Victoria Beckham, glowering through a hilarious Spice Girls send up performed by the whole company.
During the show you’ll see fabulous, wicked and skillful pastiches of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Cher, Madonna & Diana Ross amongst many others. All artfully choreographed by Steven Cleverley.
By the end I was grinning like an idiot. Perhaps then, that’s the point of drag. A successful drag culture means society is at peace with itself, unthreatened by alternative lifestyles, it can just party without judgement of others.
If the Arts Theatre management has any sense they’ll find a way that this life-enhancing show can grow and grow until it’s a permanent feature of late night Soho.
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) Get tanked up with your mates and relish this saucy, skillful, gloriously funny hour of great drag cabaret.