Review by Harry Bower
Climate change is the biggest existential risk to human survival and threatens the very existence of everything we know. Not a particularly cheerful way to start a review, but don’t worry, it’s not all bad! I talk about mirror balls, sexual inuendo and lip-syncing shortly.
That I’m able to do so is as result of Relish Theatre’s latest drag-cabaret play, Acid’s Reign, which is playing at VAULT Festival this week. It can sometimes feel like some shows include themes of climate change for the sake of it, because it’s topical and it feels appropriate. That’s not the case here – Acid’s Reign is a very well-written and funny play which succeeds in convincing its audience (and its performers) that the climate crisis is also a queer crisis. It’s educational, too, who knew that mushrooms were queer? OK, it turns out, a lot of people.
Welcomed by our host, Mother Nature, the audience are also her audience, in her drag club. All is well until Acid enters, a young bull-in-a-china shop figure with no empathy for the environment. Acid wants to buy Mother Nature’s club, knock it down, and turn it into something modern and soulless – and so Mother Nature decides it’s time to teach them a lesson. In a format which somewhat resembles A Christmas Carol the show then introduces one by one three characters played by drag Queens and Kings, each representing the Sea, Land, and Air, who perform for Acid and show them the error of their ways.
The main character Acid really represents most of the general public and both their apparent apathy and consequential anxiety around our climate. Who wants to make huge sacrifices when surely recycling is enough? As the play begins to address issues of climate poverty, the damage caused by humans to the earth’s natural resources, the polluting of the oceans and so many more hard truths, Acid’s focus begins to shift from apathy and denial to passion and acceptance.
Each scene and performer are accompanied by a number of pop songs which have had lyrics reworked to match the theme of that interaction. Think Scissor Sisters’ Filthy Gorgeous about a dirty oil magnate, Rolling in the Deep by Adele to represent the sea, and Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy reworked as Bad Gay. The results are mixed, with some coming across as absolute genius and others needing a bit of lyrical work to make them fit more seamlessly – though the imperfections and lack of polish are likely intentional and match the seemingly (though usually meticulously planned) off-the-cuff nature of drag performance.
There are some genuinely hysterical moments in this play. One scene, which I won’t ruin, centres around oil and features a pipe and a cocktail glass. I know you might think you can guess where I’m going with that, but I promise you, you’re wrong. Those brilliant moments are peppered throughout the show and are let down only by occasional stumbles in the performances both in terms of vocal conviction, and corpsing which, despite being handled very well by the performers and raising a laugh, did jolt me out of the world I’d been immersed in. I also wasn’t blown away by some of the lip syncing which at its best was amusing in moments but at its worst was out of time or missed entirely.
The performers are all naturals and are clearly each accomplished in their own right. The casting deserves real credit here, as all four of the actors compliment the others in a perfect balance of outrageous, subtle, direct and understated. For me it is Joshua Oakes-Rogers who shines the brightest, playing Acid with a youthful exuberance and cheeky campness which immediately endears the character to the audience. Throughout they perform an antagonist who needs to show a visceral reaction to being convinced climate change is something they should be concerned about, and yet at the same time must act as continual light relief and comedy value to those watching. It’s a difficult line to toe and could come across disingenuous. It doesn’t.
From the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, Catja Hamilton’s lighting design is excellent. It is suitably glitzy and glamorous, making use of the glitterball set, without being overbearing or overpowering. Given likely-limited parameters to work with by the very nature of fringe theatre, it is a notable achievement in itself that the lighting design was even noticed, let alone that it added significant value to the piece. As did the costume design which was excellent.
Acid Reign’s message is simultaneously one of climate urgency and climate realism. It encourages its audience to have a bucket load of fun on its journey and doesn’t take itself too seriously, something a lot of climate-inspired shows cannot say. In fact, everything it has to say on climate is considered, thoughtful and level-headed. Despite its characters’ appropriate flamboyancy, the show never gets too dramatic in its assessment of where we are and what we’re supposed to do, as individuals – and that’s refreshing. It is a brilliant hour of fun, and with a bit of polish could have a suitably sustainable future.
Acid’s Reign plays at VAULT Festival until Sunday 19 March 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/performances/acids-reign/.
For more by Relish Theatre visit https://relishtheatre.net/.