This Is Cabaret Rating: ★★★★★
Sometime in the late 1980s, Kenny Everett, Freddie Mercury and Princess Diana apparently walked into a South London gay bar. If you need to Google any of those names, there’s a good chance that Royal Vauxhall is not for you.
Details of that night have only appeared in a book written by Everett sidekick Cleo Rocos a few years ago to promote her new tequila brand; we apologise, therefore, if we take this unlikely caper with a pinch of salt, a slice of lime and a shot of the strong stuff. No matter – just the idea that these three epochal characters shared the same roof is enough to send the imagination spinning.
Royal Vauxhall’s story begins before the legendary outing. We only see three of the foursome that went to the RVT (Rocos plays no part in this version of her tale): Diana is keen to duck out of the palace to experience the forbidden pleasure of a nightclub with her friends; Freddie and Kenny are more cautious, worrying about the risk of their being seen by paparazzi in a gay pub at a time when they were still, at least publicly, in the closet. Diana twists arms, dons a disguise and soon the trio are heading to South London.
Desmond O’Connor’s latest musical is not as topical as his previous outings Failed States and Toxic Bankers even if Princess Kate has now taken over as the Royal Womb. The 1980s were a very different time – social media was a distant dream, corporations paid their taxes and very few gay celebrities were out. Even those that were out underplayed that side of their lives, an attitude epitomised by Boy George infamously boasting that he preferred a cup of tea to sex despite being in a passionate affair with his band’s drummer, Jon Moss.
Diana’s marriage was in no less a state of public denial. Her husband’s affair with the then-Camilla Parker-Bowles was not generally known back then and Royal Vauxhall has fun imagining the Princess Of Heart’s views on the matter. Played by Sarah-Louise Young, Diana is a faux-naif creature able to see through her two friends’ layers of self-deceit and frailties. Reuben Kaye – whose new show Seven Sins opens next week at the Café de Paris – has fun with Mercury’s cocksure persona while Stuart Saint is a perfect fit as the radio and TV star never completely comfortable in his own skin.
The three actors add ballast to the musical with their scene-stealing secondary characters. Young’s take on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is inspired as is Saint as a rhyming bouncer (a Shakespearean door whore for the ages, one feels). Kaye’s turn as Ragina Fong may lack the original’s Glaswegian accent but his interactive gameshow pumps up this musical and cheekily evokes the RVT atmosphere of yore.
The trio play to their strengths. Young is among the finest cabaret singers and character comedians of her generation and seeing her perform in the intimate RVT space is sheer joy. Saint wears Everett like a snug condom, inhabiting the character from hair to heel. Mercury’s larger-than-life persona is robustly expressed by Kaye, especially on the standout song Live Before You Die; as Fong, this world-class cabaret compere gets to put on another superb display in ad libbing.
Russell Lucas’ direction keeps things zipping along while making brilliant use of the RVT space. Theatre folk may write about “immersive” productions with one hand down their pants but cabaret is the only stage genre that revels in fucking with the fourth wall. As the cast whizz around the pub and drag punters into the fray, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of what it would have been like for Diana and chums as they (perhaps) danced the night away here three decades ago.
Royal Vauxhall is not without its faults – some of the gags fall flatter than fresh vinyl and only a few of the songs are memorable the day after – but this is a nailed-on must-see especially in its current setting and with its top notch cast. Seeing the likes of Young, Saint and Kaye knock it out of the park is one thing; seeing them do it with the aid of the greatest theatrical “prop” in town – namely the fixtures, fittings and atmosphere of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – is a gobsmacking experience.
Royal Vauxhall continues at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on 18, 24 and 25 February. Ticket information and availability can be found on the RVT website.