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Mae West’s rare gay classic ‘The Drag’ revived at London’s Arcola Theatre – review

By Will Stroude

Adapted by Peter Darney (5 Guys Chillin’) from a Mae West text that scandalised 1927 America, The Drag is ripe fodder for 2017 queer Dalston – and one of the most enjoyable and engaging plays I’ve seen in years. It follows the tale of Rolly Kingsbury, who is almost the perfect specimen of a heterosexual married man in every conventional way – young, handsome, rich – apart from one little ‘flaw’: his rampant and enthusiastic lust for cock.

A lot of the initial comedy stems from the other characters’ rigid determination to straight-wash Rolly. Whilst Rolly’s naive but likeable wife Clair, played sensitively by Tasmine Airey, wonders why he never kisses her beyond the cheek; Rolly and Clair’s fathers both want to idolise him as an epitome of youthful masculinity, to different extents. Arkem Walton is suavely adroit as the Doctor, and Stuart Honey is convincing as the Judge, and Rolly’s father.

Rolly himself just can’t wait to get Claire out of the house so he can get the boys round and throw a Drag Ball in his tight-clinging singlet: the 1920s version of a chillout, one imagines. Damien Killeen is excellent as Rolly. He allows the character enough camp and humour to gain plenty of laughs but also, refreshingly, shows a sensitivity that makes you believe wholly in his story. Killeen allowing himself to show vulnerability on stage was touching and powerful.

Of course, you’d expect nothing less from a Peter Darney production. The high energy levels are signature Darney throughout the piece, with brilliant set-pieces incorporated such as the jazzed-up ‘Sexy Back’ dance lead by a marvellous elderly drag queen. Likewise the quartet of bitchy, drug-taking queens who form Rolly’s friends – Diego Benzoni, Anthony Cranfield, Dior Clarke and Sam Reynolds – are both hilarious and modern gay scene archetypes.

But Darney is also interested in hitting the emotional truth beneath the spectacle. The Drag could easily have just been a straightforward romp, but just as Mae West had an incisive wit beneath her bombastic allure, this play also questions and provokes thought – as befits the Arcola Queer Collective’s ethos. As we watch a character forced to hide himself, one questions whether it’s still easier even now, perhaps, for some men to be ‘straight’ than be true?

Where this is most pertinently brought to light is in Rolly’s unrequited love for engineer Allen Grayson, played by the beautifully glacial Mikko Makela. True, I would have personally preferred a touch more weight to this storyline to give a deeper sense of Rolly’s pain. Yet in a play with so much happening – from Alex Scurr’s (the Gay Men’s Dance Company) vivid choreography to a cast of over seventeen members – one veers to forgiveness.

There are many other positives though I could gladly point out about The Drag, including Camilla Harding’s scene-stealing and seriously too short turn as the vampish Marion. Alas, I don’t have the space here to fully do it justice so I will simply say, with all honesty: go and see it while you can! Ultimately, this is a play that delights, beguiles and reminds one of the hard-won happiness we are blissfully free to pursue as gay men in 2017.

The Drag plays at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until Friday 13th January, 9pm. £10. For tickets click here.

Double bill tickets are also available with the Arcola Queer Collective’s other show ‘The X’, preceding ‘The Drag’. £18.

For more more of the best deals on tickets and shows, visit

Words: Patrick Cash

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