Owing as much to RuPaul’s Drag Race as it does to Coronation Street, The Ruby Slippers is a new show about love, identity and following your dreams, with a true northern warmth and a big gay heart.
Set in a failing drag club run by bubbly Raz (James Rogerson), the story begins as he tries to deal with his feelings for his flatmate and head barman Ryan, keep afloat after the opening of rival bar Nine Inches, and fend off the chequebook of a supermarket chain desperate to build on his land. It’s part disco, part farce until a secret is revealed that changes everything…
Gemma Hollywood’s set captures the dingy charm of a gay bar that’s seen better days, and some big pop tunes incorporate a great party atmosphere throughout.
The show has to tread a fine line between comedy and drama at times, especially handling the story of Ryan’s secret – he is about to start transitioning to become a woman. And although this is handled with sensitivity, it can only go so far in the confines of an essentially light entertainment show.
The big reveal needed to pack more punch, and the shy character really needed more of a voice; the more domineering characters tended to speak for him or provide his backstory, and this didn’t seem quite enough. The transgender ‘twist’ sometimes felt like more of a plot device than an exploration of a character’s identity, and set up more for the others to react to it than anything else. However, Jamie Paul’s performance as Ryan/ Rachel was sweet and sensitively portrayed; and maybe it is perfectly okay that The Ruby Slippers chose not to politicise the character in that way.
It is, after all, a crowd-pleaser, and to this end Jordan Simms and Owen Farrow as partners-in-drag Phoenix and Destiny were great characters that really give The Ruby Slippers its X Factor. Both well-known queens on the Manchester scene (read MADEUP’s interview with Owen here) as well as experienced actors, singers and dancers outside of the world of drag, their comic timing was superb, their energy and style endlessly entertaining, and the Britney Spears routine a real highlight. Phoenix and Destiny are a scream, brassy tarts-with-hearts with so much on-stage chemistry between the absurdly multi-talented Simms and Farrow, you’d happily watch them read the phone book.
Emma Culshaw and David Paul’s script is big on laughs and director Mark Heller punctuates this with vibrant sketches of physical comedy that combine for a fun and extremely likeable show.