Royal Court Theatre, London – until 25 February 2023
Ever been to a queer club? You know, drag cabaret night at Madame Jojo’s, or the Black Cap or Her Upstairs. No? Well, not to worry — the Royal Court’s latest provides a fabulously extravagant simulation of the experience with its staging of Sound of the Underground, a play written by Travis Alabanza — whose contemporary classic Burgerz is coming to the South Bank’s Purcell Room in March — and directed by his co-creator Debbie Hannan. It’s billed as having “haze, strobe, flashing lights, sudden light changes, sudden and loud noise, strong language, nudity and audience interaction”, so we certainly know what to expect. And boy do we get it! And then some…
Borrowing its title from the Girls Aloud 2002 classic pop hit, the show begins rather slowly in a kitchen (designed by Rosie Elnile and Max Johns), as Rhys Hollis and seven other underground drag performers discuss the economics of the scene, highlighting issues of poor wages and conditions, and the need for a trade union of their own. The group is quite diverse both racially and in respect to gender, with a drag king and a cis queen, and enough they/them pronouns to make your head spin. In the playtext, Sharon Le Grand offers this self-description: “a nice cunt in a hat”. Okay… The others, from Midgette Bardot to Wet Mess and Sadie Sinner the Songbird, offer a kaleidoscopic image of contemporary queerness. It’s enough to make neighbours bang on their bathrooms walls.
As the plot morphs into a plan to kill RuPaul, whose popular reality TV show has made drag too mainstream and too commercial, the performers dress up in military fatigues and, before much else can happen, satirise straight theatre tropes before suddenly switching direction by dismantling the kitchen-sink-drama set as a prelude to giving personal testimonies about their lives. So they lip-sync to voiceovers of their own words, or to those of each other, explaining the hard reality of the business of drag — its conditions of work and the prejudices they face. Criticism of RuPaul’s Drag Race shares a sofa with the frank admission that some of them would join it.
This section goes around and round until it’s intermission time and the audience can revel in tweeting about the raucous laughter of the first part, with Tammy Reynolds’s wonderfully confident strut as Midgitte Bardot, cocktail in hand and, with a divine curl of the lip, asking the public for a light.
How Mwice Kavindele, as Sadie Sinner the Songbird, and Lilly SnatchDragon – co-founder of pan-Asian drag collective the Bitten Peach — reminded us of ethnic diversity, while CHIYO questioned our love of drag performers when so few help them when they attacked or abused in the street. The performers have satirised gender stereotypes and celebrated queer, non-binary, and trans drag artists, but now it’s time to show rather than tell: after all, beats really are pumping on the stereo.
The second half absolutely catches fire: it is a wonderful cabaret night, compered by Sue Gives a Fuck, this time wearing a gorgeously colourful dress, who takes us on a wild and often hilarious their-story tour from Georgian Molly Houses to Second World War Soho dives, while brilliantly pumping up the atmospherics. The acts themselves are beautifully designed and performed: Lilly SnatchDragon’s fan-dance strip, Sadie Sinner the Songbird’s anti-imperialist burlesque, Sharon Le Grand’s inspiring big voice, Wet Mess’s enthralling renaissance clown dance and Midgitte Bardot’s “Hot Piss” song. Finally, drag king CHIYO — the first trans man to compete for Mr Gay UK — emphasises the pain as well as pleasure of the scene, an overflow of real emotion.
Alabanza and Hannan’s production is often deliberately messy, collapsing in a provocatively queer way the different types of theatre — drama, documentary, verbatim, fantasy, cabaret, music, and song and dance — to question our preconceptions of what makes for good performance. Throughout the show, the script highlights the pay and conditions of work, illustrating in a Brechtian way what goes on behind the scenes, and stresses the authenticity of the performers, as opposed to the straight men in dresses of mainstream drag. It’s also a lament for the disappearance of queer venues, and an assertion (however questionable) of the intrinsic radicality of queer and trans identity. It is, after all, the sound of the underground.
At several moments, this insistence that there is a real and a false way of doing drag seems to play into a rather traditional notion of authenticity in culture, in which previously genuine artists sell out to the commercial world. Yawn. However, as Alabanza explains in the playtext, their’s has been a concerted attempt to involve both the performers and the crew in all aspects of the show’s creation, to pay them all the same, and to reach collective decisions. This questioning of hierarchy is certainly radical, and the result is an event that, despite some limp bits (what?), is infused with a vividly beautiful anarchic spirit and a wry and clever humour even in adversity. It’s that rare thing — a show whose electric ending pushes you higher.
- Sound of the Underground is at the Royal Court until 25 February.