Candace Chan

Obsessed with hair, outlandish makeup and Judith Butler, Candace sees drag as the perfect art form to challenge boundaries and reinvent identities. You can follow her on twitter (@candycyt).

Race Horse Bring Their Rollercoaster Circus Show To The UK

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Race Horse's thrilling circus extravaganza Super Sunday is on tour around the UK until 3 June. Image: Petter Hellman.
Race Horse’s thrilling circus extravaganza Super Sunday is on tour around the UK until 3 June. Image: Petter Hellman.

Last year Finland’s Race Horse Company brought their wild circus extravaganza Super Sunday to CircusFest 2016 at the Roundhouse. This year they return with not one but two shows, taking Super Sunday and Around – a circus show for children – on a UK tour from this month until 3 June 2017.

Filmed during the 2014 run, here is a breathtaking taster of what to expect from Super Sunday.

We sat down with Rauli Kosonen and Kalle Lehto, founding members and performers of Race Horse Company, to find out more.


Race Horse Company was formed in 2008 – how did it come about and what was the Finnish circus scene like back then?

Rauli: Race Horse Company started as the dream of three circus students who wanted to create their own raw physical circus show and tour around the world. At that time in Finland, there were only a few “new circus” companies and we asked one of these, Circo Aereo, to work with us to create a show and help us with the production.  We had no idea how things worked and how things were done!  Although the Finnish circus scene is small there is a really hard-working culture, an attitude of not giving up when things are difficult.

What makes Race Horse special? Do you have a concept, a theme or a motif which goes through all your works? 

Rauli: I think we look at each work as an individual project but you can find many similarities between them. We want to be truthful to our idea of circus so we always try to tell the story – or express whatever the idea is – through our circus skills. We then like to add black humour and strange elements and then just sweat a lot – on and off stage!

In the end we do want to amaze and amuse people but in such a way that audiences don’t always have to react to everything.  We would still be there doing our thing with the same raw energy.

Your company is not short on daredevil acrobatics and your recent work has shown an aesthetic of chaos and play. How do you look for new ways to push the physical and artistic side of your work? 

Rauli: I don’t think we really have to ”look” for new ideas, more or less the ideas comes to us. Always in circus, there is this strong sense of wanting to improve yourself and your skills as much as possible. I think the same applies to creating shows or coming up with ideas. You never want to do the same thing twice, so you start to think about a new way to surprise yourself or how you can do something you haven’t done before.

Has Super Sunday changed since we last saw it at the Roundhouse during Circusfest 2016?

Rauli: The show is still the same idiotic rollercoaster ride but, of course, we make small adjustments and we still like to push ourselves to make the show better each time. We have a playful mutual encouragement to boost each other to new limits.

Tell us about the wheel of death – an impressive but dangerous piece of equipment. Is it really as dangerous as it looks? Have you ever had a serious accident during practice or performance?

Rauli: It is everything you said and even more. The first time you get the thing up and walk on it, it’s already a thrilling experience. It makes your senses really alert – knowing there is a risk of injury at every step is  hard to explain. We’ve had a few injuries s with this machine. It’s not something I really want to talk about, but as a example one of our performers flew out from the top and broke both his ankles. Luckily, nothing more was broken! That’s why we have big mattresses under the death wheel in Super Sunday, just in case.

What should the audience expect from Around? Will adults enjoy it as much as children? 

Kalle: I think all ages of audience will enjoy the show. At least that’s what Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat said!

Is Aroundyour first circus show for children? What is it like creating a circus show for a much younger audience?

Kalle: Around is actually part 2 of my trilogy of shows for children with the same ringmaster character. The first one Circles  premiered in 2012 and the third Chevalier is coming out in 2019. Creating a show for children is fun because kids are so honest with their feedback and, if they are bored, they let you know. In a way it’s more challenging because kids detect emotions but don’t yet really understand things like irony or sarcasm. And most kids come to see the show with their parents so the show has to entertain adults at the same time.

Live music is being used more and more in contemporary circus and Around features two acrobats and a band of musicians. How important is music to your work and how collaborative is the process between the acrobats and the musicians?

Kalle: I like to work a lot with music because through music I started breakdance and through breakdance I started circus. In this show we use live music because it’s about traditional circus where music was always live. The music in Around is made to accompany the performance and the live aspect creates opportunities for interaction. And even the circus artists contribute to the music in Around – I made my debut in pan flute in this show which was fun.

Super Sunday and Around are on tour in the UK from 9 April – 3 June. For tour dates visit cryingoutloud.org/whats-on/

 


Review: Cirque Du Soleil’s Amaluna

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Returning again to the Royal Albert Hall, Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Queen Prospera elebrates her daughter Miranda’s coming of age by raising a storm, causing a group of sailors to wash up on the island of Amaluna. One of the sailors, Romeo, saw Miranda and they fell in love at first sight. However, their love is tested by the goddesses and creatures that inhabit the island.

At 2.5 hours long, Amaluna features a host of circus disciplines performed by highly talented artistes from around the world. Highlights include an adrenaline pumping straps act, a mesmerising aerial hoop and hand-balancing sequence featuring a water bowl, and a fast-paced uneven bars act.

For the hoop/handbalancing sequence, Cirque breathes new life into an otherwise standard routine through an aerial hoop performer who sings and contorts at the same time. Our heroine Miranda’s hand-balancing skills are also put to the test when she dips in and out of the water bowl to perform impressive feats that require a high degree of flexibility, strength and balance.

There are moments when Cirque tries to experiment with established forms of circus disciplines. In one act, three aerial poles suspended from the rotating carousel above are mirrored by short Chinese poles attached to the ground. The show gets a point for innovation, but sadly this unique staging only provides a brief moment of wonder through a fast spinning aerial sequence. For the rest of the act, there is minimal action as the performers are limited by the significantly shorter poles, only half the length of a regular Chinese pole.

Unfortunately, Amaluna loses that point when it goes out of its way to give the noble art of clowning a bad name. Echoing the relationship between Romeo and Miranda, the story sees the two clowns playing his manservant and her nanny fall in love. They are chiefly there to provide comic relief and distraction as the set is being changed but sadly their act is often sexist and predictable, a filler providing very little entertainment value and only a few laughs.

Although Amaluna was created in 2012, this doesn’t feel a lot like a contemporary production. The show is still very much adhering to and limited by the formula of success which Cirque has depended on for years. In an attempt to find the lowest common denominator Cirque has opted for a palatable and arguably tired range of visual tropes. The female performers and musicians are dressed in costumes inspired by goth and punk aesthetics, giving off 80s hair and glam rock chick vibes. On the rare occasion that the male performers are not topless, they wear bondage-inspired costumes; our hero is seen removing his top on a number of times in the show apparently only for dramatic effect. Set in a distant and unknown time and space, the limitless possibilities available to the designers of Amaluna is wasted on a vision that feels at times dated and risk-averse.

Technically impressive but conceptually bland, this new production of Amaluna begs the question: how long can Cirque bank on their tried and tested formula of spectacle and comedy, in the context of contemporary circus where up-and-coming performers are continuously pushing the boundaries of their technique and storytelling? All in all, Amaluna was a thoroughly enjoyable performance featuring many jaw-dropping moments but sadly very little food for thought.

 

DENIM: “Drag Is Losing Its Political Edge.”

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Formed in 2010, drag girl band DENIM has transformed from Cambridge University’s first and only professional drag troupe to an award-nominated supergroup who have toured the UK and shared the Glastonbury stage with Florence & the Machine.

Stylish, hilarious, talented and intelligent, DENIM is a tour-de-force formed by lead performer Glamrou, Crystal Vaginova, Electra Cute, Shirley du Naughty and Aphrodite Jones. We sat down with Glamrou to talk about their journey so far and their ongoing Live at Zedel residency.


How did DENIM come about? Why did you want to start a 90s girl band?

Denim started in my second year studying at Cambridge. I wanted to throw a queer club night where gender expression and deconstruction were prioritised, regardless of sexual orientation or anything like that. There was an LGBT night at the University, but I wanted to throw a night that was about creative queer expression outside of pure sexual orientation.

As for the 90s vibe: we played lots of 90s tracks in our first event and there’s something so joyfully lame about the 90s aesthetic, not least double denim (ahem!) and hilarious group choreography in the pop groups and tacky music videos. DENIM is about unadulterated joy, and the 90s aesthetic is something we’re inspired by; 90s pop artists just relished the camp pop aesthetic without fearing seeming lame, which is what we like to do.

 

What’s it like working as a group? Is it hard working with so many big personalities?

Ha! I’m afraid to bore you with a non-scandal response but we are first and foremost best friends and, as a queer collective, really believe in the power of collaborating and devising. So the big personalities all rubbing heads is part of the joy with our creative process. But of course little disagreements come about here and there, but I believe in the power of argument and “productive conflict” for opening up everyone’s perspectives collectively. We also have an incredible director Jess Edwards, and Roger Granville and his production team to help us out – so all five egos are well and truly managed by a pretty incredible team.

 

“I love our shows that don’t preach to the converted and which genuinely surprise drag sceptics in the room.”

 

DENIM is an all-singing, all dancing girl group, which is rather unusual in the drag circuit. Not to mention every member of your group have incredible voices. Do you all come from a theatre and performance background?

Aw, very kind to say! We appreciate that. It really is our aim to show that drag performances can be really skilled and well-executed to surprise people who might doubt the quality and talent of a drag show. So many people have said to us – “that’s cool that you actually sing. Wouldn’t have expected that”. I love our shows that don’t preach to the converted and which genuinely surprise drag sceptics in the room.

In terms of backgrounds: in some capacity, yes. Most of us met doing drama and music as extra-curricular activities whilst studying at Cambridge, so it is a shared interest that brought us together, but no one has been professionally trained in performance.

 

“We are very aware that we are five men thinking about femininity.”

 

You put a lot of thought and work into your performance and it seems that, whenever DENIM is on stage, you’re here to tear the house down.  Are you here to challenge mainstream drag which sometimes rely on looks and charisma?

Definitely. I have to say that I am a bit disappointed by a lot of drag out there which seems to be all about serving face, and not saying anything political. There is an infinitude of options out there for a drag queen, but our personal belief is that if you are bringing a lot of people into a queer space or story, you have to use it as some sort of action for change.

We use music and comedy and self-expression to show people a queer way of life and how it can be joyous. I get frustrated when I see drag that simply wants to replicate fashion ideals but little els. Also, we are very aware that we are five men thinking about femininity. So we don’t ever want to exploit feminine images without critical politics and reflection on what we are doing, and very much see drag as a feminist ally. Our queer female director Jess Edwards is essential to helping us keep this conversation ongoing.

 

We love that DENIM unapologetically celebrates diversity and fluidity. Is it true that two of your members are heterosexual men?

It’s true! Gender and sexuality aren’t intrinsically bound; I think both members feel genderqueer but don’t identify as so in their sexuality. It’s funny how surprising this is to people. When I’m in drag, I’m rarely ever thinking about my sexuality anyway as I quite literally cannot have sex in drag (my penis is taped away). For me, it’s all about deconstructing and playing with my gender, and not too much about sexuality.

 

Your residency at Live at Zédel is going really well, with many shows selling out. What’s the experience like?

It’s lovely that there is such a regular audience for what we are doing! And as I said earlier, I love not preaching to the converted with our shows, and it feels really rewarding when we see Zédel customers who don’t feel that comfortable with drag suddenly standing up applauding at the end of the shows. It’s like we’ve snuck in with a Trojan horse to mess things up from the inside.

 

“A lot of drag out there is losing its political edge.”

 

Like you said drag is and should be political. Your show at Zédel is about the DENIM girls running away on the Titanic after all the queer spaces in London are destroyed. Do you still have hopes for the queer scene in London?

Of course we are hopeful but it can’t be denied that queer spaces are disappearing alarmingly quickly, that there is a rise of masculine culture among gay men, and there doesn’t seem to be much collectivity in the gay community anymore (in fact, lots of internalised homophobia and racism). A lot of drag out there is also losing its political edge, which I think is symptomatic of what is happening to the gentrification of queer culture in London. My hope is that LGBT venues reclaim their queer, inclusive quality which we need now more than ever, and that queer performers around the city remember that drag has to be first and foremost political.

 

Your debut music video has been nominated for best music video at Raindance Film Festival 2016 and will be screened at Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest. Do you see yourself doing more projects like this?

We’re currently developing a visual album so lots more songs and videos are on the way. Nineties uplifting pop aesthetics are on the way!

 

There’s no stopping DENIM so what’s next? Any plans to conquer the universe soon?

We’d like to achieve intergalactic travel but before that we are extending our run at Zédel next year, taking over Vault Festival in March for a week and collaborating with lots of other queer performers. We are also doing a UK tour, as well as developing a feature film Denim drag musical as a 3 year plan.

 

DENIM are currently performing at Live at Zedel until 11 December 2016. For latest tour dates, visit their official website http://www.denim-uk.com/

Review: The Prime Of Ms Hoyle, Chelsea Theatre

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Taking inspiration from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, David Hoyle’s latest show is a satiric lecture performance aiming to deconstruct education through the medium of education.

Ms Hoyle’s character is loving and charismatic like the novel’s titular character. She starts the class by greeting everyone warmly, trying to establish genuine connections with everyone in the room. Addressing us as “ladies and gentlemen, and those of you clever enough to transcend gender”, the cabaret maverick sets the radical and nonconforming overtone of the class.

There is no doubt that Ms Hoyle is a seasoned performer in the cabaret scene. She treats the students to a plethora of her talents, from improvising a song about the core values of education, to immortalising one of us in the form of an abstract chalk portrait. She also appears to be very well-read and incredibly knowledgeable. It is hard not to feel small in her class, for without knowledge of Spark’s book and the wide and varied cultural references made by our head teacher, we won’t be able to fully appreciate her ingenuity.

With confidence and fearless abandonment Ms David Hoyle treads the slippery ground between satire and pedagogy throughout the show. Setting the ground rule that conforming individuals will be thrown out of the classroom, she proceeds to throw torrents of ideas and radically liberal doctrines at her students. Sometimes she is a forward thinker, suggesting we should learn from the Finnish teaching model which values individuality and vocational training. Sometimes she is a self-proclaimed cult leader, professing her faith in Jeremy Corbyn under an alter she has made to worship him. And sometimes she is a tyrant, interrupting “Perfect Prefect” Ben (Ben Walters) in his speech when she has earlier announced that discussion and feedback are welcomed in the classroom. There are moments that feel imposing or mind-bending, but with her irresistible charm and vigour Ms Hoyle glides through unscathed.

Throughout the run, the class has the pleasure of Visiting Professors. Tonight the class is blessed by the presence of cabaret legend Penny Arcade who marks her entrance by destroying the order of the house and demanding for her turn to speak. As soon as she gets on stage, she announces that she will not be talking about education as she was asked to. Instead she offers the students her thoughts on a range of issues from her take on transgender identity, her vehement distaste of the philistine and how we should all be ourselves because in the grand scheme of things, nothing really matters. She gives the students a lot of food for thought, and leaves us to wonder if she has just challenged the effectiveness of Ms Hoyle’s teaching model, or burst wide open the possibilities of liberal learning.

Running at 2.5 hours with a mishmash of lectures, anecdotes, assignments and performance from Duckie and Carnesky graduates, the show would benefit from some editing and consolidation. More importantly, it has yet to address the million dollar question: having burned the establishment to the ground, how do we move beyond the allure of anarchy and rise from its ashes? Perhaps, this is the final assignment Ms David Hoyle leaves us with before we can graduate…

The Prime of Ms David Hoyle is playing at Chelsea Theatre at 8pm and 4pm (Sunday matinee) until Sun 25 Sep. 7 World’s End Place, King’s Road, London SW10 0DR. http://www.chelseatheatre.org.uk/

Christeene Pulls The Trigger At Soho Theatre – But Is It A Hit Or Miss?

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Christeene is what nightmares are made of – a genderfuck powerhouse of terror in tatty underwear who seems to have just emerged from the sewer.

With the Soho Theatre stage bare save for hazy UV lighting and a few DIY props, the US alt-drag queen inhabits a grimy sex dungeon infused with filth and transgression. The latest show Trigger brings to the fore this artist’s formidable presence and an in-your-face aesthetic used to command the audience through terrifyingly piercing stares, extra-terrestrial screeches and angry stomps.

It is a full-on hour of sensory overload, and a germophobe’s idea of hell on earth. Spit, sweat and pints fly around the stage, body fluids are exchanged freely and the American revels in obsessive compulsive play with their body throughout. Oh, and let’s not forget the horror-inducing audience participation which ranges from being grabbed and licked to being snogged by the drag terrorist. Resistance is futile – it won’t stop you from getting the Christeene treatment.

The whole concept of Christeene defies common forms of definition. On a personal level, Christeene’s existence challenges the very meaning of drag : unpolished, untucked and underdressed, Christeene adamantly refuses to be labelled by gender pronouns. On a performance level, it would do Christeene a huge disservice to try and define the genre-defying repertoire – it’s music, it’s rap, it’s live art, it’s parody. Christeene’s performance falls into all of the above categories, but has the potential to subvert every single one of them.

Beyond the savagery and shock value, Trigger has in fact created a space (or, in Christeene’s words, “a stanky place”) that is both inclusive and transgressive. Referred to as “the boys”, the rotating cast of backup dancers represent diverging forms of masculinity and bodies that are cisgender and trans. Sometimes Christeene can be a bit of a preacher, but a pretty damn good one, so the socio-political commentaries sit nicely in the show. With a rusty voice the performer chants slogans like “a hole’s a hole”, “ride your inner pony” and “masculinity is dead”, and then hits the point home with a provocative and occasionally joyous number.

Christeene: Trigger is here to provoke and to point quite literally two big middle fingers at heteronormativity. It is the kind of show that will leave you speechless, dazed and a bit fucked up. It is something that needs to be seen and cannot be unseen. Holding the audience hostage in the bowel of filth and genderfuckery, Christeene is rearing to unleash that inner pony in every single one of us.

This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★

Christeene: Trigger is playing at Soho Theatre at 9.30pm until Sat 17 Sep. 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE. http://www.sohotheatre.com/

Review: Heels Of Glory, Chelsea Theatre

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Seven years in the making, self-billed “drag action musical” Heels of Glory arrives for a three week run at Chelsea Theatre as one of the headliners of this year’s London Pride Festival.

Heels of Glory follows the story of Honey (Matthew Floyd Jones), a young drag queen and her Bond-obsessed best friend Jay (Susan Harrison) as they sneak into drag club La Douche to see legendary drag queen Splendorella (Topsie Redfern). Amidst the chaos they uncover the evil plan of villain Allura Supreme (Sarah-Louise Young), and the pair become all that stands between her and the fate of all drag queens in the world…

The drag musical offers a screwball rendition of action movies we know all too well – there is a villain, the underdog hero, the sidekick and of course chase and fight scenes – except that the hero is now a closeted drag queen on her first night out and all the other characters are queer as folk.

Topsie Redfern in Heels of Glory, Chelsea Theatre (June 2016)
Topsie Redfern in Heels of Glory, Chelsea Theatre (June 2016)

Do not go in expecting a glitzy, self-important West End musical – with a cast and creative team made up of seasoned cabaret artists, the show does not take itself too seriously. The set is made up of comic book inspired print outs from the chandelier in the ceiling to the rotary dial telephone on the wall while the plot is dotted with farcical but hilarious dei ex machina: the chase scene between Allura’s henchmen and Honey is interrupted by “union rules” – just as the henchmen are about to apprehend our hero, their shift is over and they are off to grab an interval drink.

The show is an unapologetic celebration of everything we love about LGBTQ+ culture, featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race references, sing-alongs, and in the great tradition of Paris is Burning, a reading session thrown in for good measure. In a way Heels of Glory is an extended cabaret show featuring some of the UK’s finest drag/cabaret talent. Topsie Redfern, Drag Idol UK 2013 runner-up and Best Drag Newcomer of Boyz Scene Awards 2014, blows the audience away with her vocal finesse and inimitable stage presence.

Young, member of Olivier award-winning The Showstoppers, brings to life the villain that we hate to love and love to hate. Not to forget Jones (of Frisky & Mannish fame), who charms the audience with his impeccable comic timing and innate hilarity. His first time performing in full, high camp drag, Jones is almost unrecognisable and couldn’t be more different from his balaclava clad drag alter ego Ruth Less.

Writer and creator Tricity Vogue has said she hoped that Heels of Glory would not be a “niche thing” but, instead, something that would appeal to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. In light of what happened in Orlando and what is still happening to the community around the world, it is all the more important that we protect queer spaces like this, a place that celebrates and embraces differences, regardless of one’s sexual and gender identity. The grand finale is a perfect example of this: the company breaks into song and dance, the audience are invited to join them on the dance floor and everyone is encouraged to sing along to the final number, the aptly titled Don’t Let Them Drag You Down.

Packed with action, comedy, feel-good songs and the all-important message of self-acceptance, Heels Of Glory is the show to see this Pride Season.

This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★

More information on Heels Of Glory can be seen here: http://www.heelsofglory.com

Images: James Millar. Do not use with permission.

Review: The Meth Lab Presents: MAX

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MAX at the Meth Lab had a main act that exceeded expectations, and while there are misses in the acts the hits certainly make up for it.

The Meth Lab relocated to south of the river since they lost their Camden home when the The Black Cap was suddenly closed. But all is not lost. They are now based at the Eagle London, at the heart of the lively Vauxhall gay scene and only a stone’s throw away from the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

The evening features headline performance from MAX, season 7 contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and support acts by members of the Familyyy Fierce.

MAX’s performance is everything hoped for (and more). Known for her Hollywood glamour and theatre background, the grey-haired siren was portrayed on the reality show as a sassy but somewhat prudish queen who was eliminated in Episode 8.

Seeing MAX perform live proves that her RPDR portrayal is all editing – the queen I see is glamorous, fun and charming in her bustier, latex skirt and backwards cap. MAX opens her act with a live version of The Phantom of the Opera that showcases her theatrical and vocal finesse, then plunges into a wild take on Britney Spear’s Toxic which sends the crowd into a frenzy.

MAX certainly knows how to please the crowd – mocked on the show for her pseudo-British accent, she announces that the queen of England is back and struts down the stage in a Queen Elizabeth-esque outfit for her second act. MAX performs Iggy Azalea’s Fancy and Gwen Stefani’s Rich Girl, the latter a nice complement to DJ TeTe Bang’s throwback soundtrack for the night. In a way MAX is playing it safe by using these surefire dance hits in her routine, but she certainly knows what songs work best for her and delivers them with spark and charisma.

As for the supporting acts, there are some hits and misses. Maxi More’s routine about make-up is remarkable. The bearded queen plays with various materials, putting mascara on her beard at one point, rubbing half her face off at another and ends up covered in a mishmash of colloidal silver, glitter and feathers. Treading between the line of beauty and savage chaos, Maxi More delivers a visually stunning and conceptually intriguing piece of art.

Ruby Wednesday performed three songs in total, but her strength is not in numbers. She kickstarts the night with a rendition of Miley’s We Can’t Stop, and later covers David Bowie’s Five Years. While the Trannyshack winner makes a cute Miley, the first two numbers veer towards monotony and it is not until she dives into a rock song that I see the Ruby I first fell in love with – reckless, powerful and exuding charm in every move.

The Black Cap certainly cannot be replaced, but I am delighted to see that the Eagle offers greater capacity, better visibility and a stage adorned by a ridiculous amount of disco balls of varying sizes. What more can one ask for?

The Meth Lab Presents: MAX. The Eagle London, 349 Kennington Lane, London Se11 5QY. 25 Jun 2015. http://www.eaglelondon.com/

Review: Panti’s High Heels In Low Places, Soho Theatre

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High Heels in Low Places is a stand-up comedy about Dublin drag superstar Panti and her life after what the affair which became known as “Pantigate”. The media tumult around the subject of Irish homophobia shook the nation in January 2014 after the performer (as her alter ego Rory O’Neill) was asked to appear on an Irish talk show. Amongst other subjects, she was asked about same-sex marriage and she named a few of its opponents. She went on to suggest that they and anyone else who wanted to stop homosexuals having the same rights as heterosexuals were, in effect, homophobic.

This opened the gates of hell. The TV company was accused by the “homophobes” of defamation and its response was little short of shameful, effectively kowtowing to their concerns with apologies and sizeable payouts and by censoring O’Neill’s words from their online archive. The outcry was heard all over Ireland and as far as the EU’s debating chamber. Alongside Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, Panti was truly one of the outstanding gay icons of 2014.

The real kicker was not this kerfuffle, though. O’Neill was invited back by the TV company for another discussion and, having had his fingers burnt by his last appearance, instead took to the stage of a local theatre as Panti to put across a particularly personal perspective.

Well, Panti, tell us what you really think. As Panti’s supporters grew in number, she has found herself becoming what she calls a “National Fucking Treasure”, possibly as a nod to Quentin Crisp who in his seminal novel The Naked Civil Servant, called himself “one of the stately homos of England”. High Heels In Low Places, the spill-all account of Panti’s rise to fame and infamy, showcases an exquisite brand of humour that is witty, heartfelt, hyperreal and occasionally crude.

Panti’s show covers many bases with witty stories, gags aplenty and the occasional forays into socio-political commentary. There’s an almost voyeuristic glimpse into Pantigate from the perspective of the person who both caused the storm and lived within its eye. A story about her encounter with Madonna is filled with a slew of well-appreciated gay references. She also covers the hot topics of gender and sexual identity appeal with insight and wit before delving into a tale about her TV transformation.

A high point of Panti’s show is how she exemplifies how the personal is always political, but executes it with just the right amount of sass and humour to stop it being patronising. This is particularly true in the fabulous episode on what drag means to her. Differentiating herself from “female impersonators”, Panti explains why drag is not a misogynistic parody of woman but a body politic challenging established norms of femininity and masculinity.

Talking about AIDS, Panti recalls the time when she first learnt she is HIV+ and how it felt like the end of the world. But 20 years later, thanks to medical advancement she’s still standing and fierce as ever. Pairing that with a story arc on her raucous sexual adventures, she manages to say the unsayable with a light-hearted approach.

If it wasn’t obvious from the speech above, Panti is something quite special as an orator. On top of talking about her riotous and almost surreal adventures, some of the funniest moments of the evening are her run-on jokes, where she takes one joke apart with much precision and articulation, all in one breath. The show is also blessed with her random but ingenious one-liners, such as her possibly inappropriate remark on how “AIDS is like Kylie Minogue. At first only the gays get her, now everyone gets her!”

Panti Bliss is many things. She is a drag queen, an accidental activist, a feminist and, verily, a “national fucking treasure” that every Irishman and woman should be proud to include amongst their number. Most importantly, she’s a fearless survivor who has lived through the plethora of ridiculous incidents she regales in this hugely entertaining and remarkable show.

Panti: High Heels in Low Places. 20 April – 2 May, SOHO Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE. http://sohotheatre.com/

Handbags At Dawn: What Happened When RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle Of The Seasons Came To London?

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It’s a Drag Race fan’s dream come true: in RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons (BOTS), stars of the hugely popular reality show descended upon the Clapham Grand for a special evening of what RuPaul would call “eleganza extravaganza”.

This is an epic show. It is not every day that London town gets a visit from eight queens across five seasons of the hit TV show all on the same stage. This year’s Condragulations Tour is the biggest of its kind and the very first time that this live outing has come to the UK. Hosted by longtime Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, the London show includes season winners and fan favourites including Sharon Needles, Bianca del Rio and Alaska Thunderfuck.

In a recent interview, Visage comments that BOTS is “not just a bar drag queen show” but, rather, a two hour-long theatre production. Indeed the show offers many theatrical delights. Ivy Winters pulls out all the stops demonstrating quick change, juggling and stilt-walking while queen of the night Sharon Needles makes her entrance in a coffin. There’s no shortage of stunning conceptual costumes such as Manila Luzon’s popcorn dress and Pandora Boxx’s Tardis number.

Ensemble pieces are a definite highlight of the evening, especially a live version of Snatch Game, a much-loved Blanketty Blank-style challenge where the queens are asked to give their best celebrity impersonation. It is a hilarious mindfuck which sees Bianca do her own take on Judge Judy and Alaska is a very convincing Laganja Estranja, a Season 5 contestant known for her dramatic outbursts. A rendition of You Gotta Get a Gimmick from Gypsy is also a delightful surprise. Jinkx Monsoon and Visage showcased their musical finesse and brought their own personal touches to this classic striptease number.

Having checked out some of the RPDR queens performing at far smaller venues (for example, Shangela’s appearance at the recently closed Black Cap), it is obvious that the experience of seeing them at a 1250-person capacity venue such as the Clapham Grand is a world away from entertaining a crowd of 200 in a Camden pub. All of the queens have loveable personalities and incredible costumes, but some of their solo acts would be far more powerful in a more intimate space.

Because the line-up varies at different cities, it can be hard to accommodate the queens’ diverse performance styles to create a consistently entertaining two-hour show. That leads to uneven patches and awkward juxtapositions: an invigorating performance by Adore Delano of her latest single is followed by a less well received much slower number by Monsoon. At times, it feels as if there is too much padding in the show, and we’re not talking about the kind found on a drag queen’s body.

As a die-hard fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I enjoyed the show immensely but left the venue with mixed feelings, wondering whether a fully staged show is the best way to present drag. There is certainly charm in seeing a stellar line-up of drag superstars perform together in such a beautifully large venue. But what several drag characteristics like its bellicose nature and the interaction between performer and audience are hard to achieve in a bigger venue. In trying to appeal to everyone, there are a few occasions when BOTS finds itself stuck between high-camp theatre and confrontational drag.

Having said that, this is a unique opportunity for any fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race who would not want to miss out on this cornucopia of not one, not two, but eight of the biggest drag superstars today.

Rupaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons Condragulations Tour 2015. The Clapham Grand, 21-25 St John’s Hill Clapham Junction, London SW11 1TT http://www.claphamgrand.com/

 

Review: Hellscreen, The Vault Festival

Hellscreen stars East End drag legend Jonny Woo and continues at the Vaults until 8 March.Read more
Hellscreen stars East End drag legend Jonny Woo and continues at the Vaults until 8 March.
Hellscreen stars East End drag legend Jonny Woo and continues at the Vaults until 8 March.

“Who could you be if you lived without limitation?” This is the premise of Hellscreen, a play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm adapted from a Japanese horror story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa published in 1918.

Set in contemporary London, the story follows artist Frank Holt (East End cabaret legend Jonny Woo) who forms a Faustian pact with a collector (Suzette Llewelyn) and tries to recreate hell on earth through morally dubious experiments.

Although largely known for his more flamboyant drag persona, Woo has been demonstrating his prowess in other areas; one example the East London Lectures, a solo performance written and performed by him. It is refreshing to see him here take on the role of an obsessive, distressed artist, and his onstage charisma is matched by Llewelyn who captures the manipulative and formidable nature of a self-serving art dealer. The ingenious stage design features eerie projections designed by Susan Luciani and minimalist but effective use of props to further augments the unfolding horror of the story. The traverse seating within the cavernous venue adds to the intensity and darkness of the piece.

It is a pity that the plot feels thin in comparison to the excellent acting and design. There are many leaps between events and oftentimes the ensemble has to advance the story through narration. Whilst their presence is an effective device to make the audience a part of the show, it is done at the expense of interaction between the main characters.

As such, many of the themes are not dealt with thoroughly. For the entire length of the play Frank Holt believes in exposing corruption and in doing so purge evil with evil. While his obsession with fame and perfection are understandable, the motivation behind his dealer who “enables” him and his pure-hearted daughter are not as clear.

For a play that deals with themes such as good vs. evil and voyeurism, the choice to bring in an ensemble also creates a constant tug-of-war between lyrical physical theatre and the brutality of Frank’s projects. Whilst visually pleasing, a stylised portrayal of someone being stabbed is less poignant and effective than a direct portrayal of death would be in getting the theme across.

Compared to other works that deal with morality in the modern world such as Channel 4’s Black Mirror, Royal Court’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, or acclaimed Japanese manga Death Note, this theatrical adaptation feels half-baked. Having said that, Hellscreen deserves merit in its various experiments with representation. By the end of the show, the audience are drawn into the surreal world of Frank Holt with the lingering question “how far would you go for art?”

Hellscreen, part of VAULT Festival, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN. 25 February-8 March. http://www.vaultfestival.com/

(This Is Cabaret readers can get £10 Hellscreen tickets with the code ‘HELLJONNY’)