FringeReview UK 2023
Written by Travis Alabanza and Co-created and Directed by Debbie Hannan, Designed by Rosie Elnile & Max Johns, Lighting Designer Simisola Majekodunmi, Sound Designer & Composer Alexandra Fay Braithwaite, Music Supervisor, Composer & Arranger Martin Lowe, Movement Director Bambi/Omar Jordan Phillips
Assistant Director Femi Tiwo, Associate Designers Jacob Lucy & Tomas Palmer, Music Associates Nicola T Chang, Tom Mitchell & Jonathan Mitra, Additional tracks Produced by Nicholas Gilpin.
Stage Manager Jessica Thankl, DSM Emma Skaer, ASM Madeleine Coward, Show Crew Oscar Sale & Sam Kacher, Wigs Supervisor Sophia Khan, Dresser Adam Rainer, Sound Operator Florence Hand, Radiomic Technician Alice Brooks, Outreach Coordinator Lysander Dove, Personal assistant Pia Richards-Glockner, Marketing Lead Elle Robinson
Set Built Royal Court Stage Department, Additional Scenic Art Gemstage, Fabric Palace Drapery Soft Tissue Studio, Lighting Hires White Light Ltd.
Royal Court Production: Stage Supervisor TJ Chappell-Meade, Production Manager Simon Evans, Lead Producer Chris James, Lighting Supervisor Max Cherry, Sound Supervisor David McSeveney, Lighting, Programmer Stephen Settle, Company Manager Mica Taylor, Costume Supervisor Lucy Walshaw
Despite the invite, they’re not sure they should be here, but we certainly should. Travis Alabanza’s Sound of the Underground co-created and directed by Debbie Hannan brings this eight-strong ensemble of drag artists into the Royal Court.
Cue a brilliant bewildering. If spaces dictate aesthetics, this tripartite show starts punching out of the box quite literally, to an apotheosis two hours later. If joyous filth touches the sublime, it’s time the sublime lost its second and third letters. I’ve not seen a more joyous kicking of January blues. And mental distress runs through this show like a corset: both confining and a defiant ring of funny-bones.
It takes a bit to settle. After the obligatory ‘Takeover’ warm-up, a faux-capitulation: if a play’s expected, cue a sleek kitchen for Today’s the Day, a scripted discussion of how the drag scene’s been colonised, commercialised, and through RuPaul also dragging the artists’ world centre-right; which coincides with the extinction of every club that nurtured them (there’s absorbing fore-words and afterwords in the text, with much else). Talk of fair pay, homelessness, general precarity, being applauded inside a club and assaulted outside it.
Nearly everyone’s late (cue intros), to tea and yes a flip-chart: the decision to kill RuPaul is only a provisional joke. By this time so many visual and other gags (including the theatrical pause) have peppered the scene, you half-expect the way this deconstructs via movement director Bambi/Omar Jordan Phillips and the cast gleefully tearing down the kitchen after an imaginary commando-raid and kidnap (from full fem fatigues to battle dress).
What we get next is a mutually supportive verbatim of lip-synchs as the artists’ own recorded voices collage their experiences in the industry (as it’s too quickly becoming); beautifully realised as voices change more rapidly than the artists underneath, cradling a comrade in lip-synch.
It’s riveting and one of those moments that Alabanza directs should be a renewed in each production: to use its own artists’ experience, keeping the show forever fresh, different, creative. It’s just one of the theatrical innovations to accommodate a hosted genre.
It’s in the third act, also second half, we get a host writer too. It’s where sound and composition (Alexandra Faye Braithwaite) and Lighting (Simisola Majekodunmi) turn the Downstairs into a passage of joy. Having supplied that kitchen, designers Rosie Elnile and Max Johns go on to hoist a gorgeous fabric palace. Expect chaise-longs.
Sue Gives A Fuck acting as compere imagines living from the 18th century Molly Houses till now, a light history introducing the other acts and promenading between. First burlesque rippling with decolonisation by Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner the Songbird, Wet Mess’s green neon-tipped Tudor Blackadder-dress and leering clown-face. Ms Sharon Le Grand’s operatic scena really does stop the show for a moment, succeeded by a deliciously outré fan-based striptease by Lilly SnatchDragon, after which Rhys Hollis parades as Rhys’ Pieces – also centring the acting in Today’s the Day. Then there’s drag king Chiyo (or CHIYO). Starting without music Chiyo then bares the desolate heart also beating in the show: how in the last decade exclusionary forces, capitalism and social invasion (Soho for instance) first kill clubs then make areas unsafe.
Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot bar the loyally-hoisted life-size cut-out and pre-recorded announcement was scheduled not to appear; though her presence – often ripostes and frantically-run circuits – can be imagined from the text.
A final ensemble and you know, through all the collection buckets, shout-outs and invitations to use your phones that Alabanza, Hannan and the Court have nurtured one of the most exciting hybrids of recent years. Drag interrogates itself, usually snarls at forces pushing back. This time lament, defiance, analysis, witness through several mediums anchor a deeper defiance, fun and reclamation. It’ll remain one of the break-out, breakthrough, certainly ground-breaking shows this year.