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Review: Cybil Service (VAULT Festival)

Review by Rosie Holmes

Any show featuring a drag queen, digs at the Government and witty one-liners is right up my street. Sal Mohammed’s one hour long, one-person show Cybil Service is smart, witty and poignant, all whilst proving incredibly relevant. Having been described as ‘Cabaret, Drag and Burlesque’ the show was not necessarily what I was expecting. Sure, there was indeed a drag queen, but this show was much more than a drag act or cabaret, it was a piece that discusses and examines some important topics.

Opening the show, we are greeted by Sal Mohammed’s drag alter ego as they lip sync and strut their stuff across the stage. Mohammed runs us through the average weekend in the life of a drag queen In London - performing at bottomless brunches, officiating weddings and hosting karaoke nights. The mood of the piece then shifts as the pandemic hits. Mohammed explains their need for a stable income as opportunities dry up during the national lockdowns. With the help of the audience, Mohammed transforms from glam drag queen to a work from home appropriate get-up (the classic shirt on top, trackies on the bottom). But what does this mean for their true personality and passions that need to be squashed in order to fit in at a governmental department?

Drawing on their own experience as a civil servant, Mohammed begins the next part of their story as they become a policy adviser for the department of transport. The dialogue is funny and relatable, we see awkward zoom calls, an annoying boss who ends every call with “toodles” and the all too familiar inner dialogue of imposter syndrome whilst at work. Whilst these are funny and clearly resonate with the audience, Mohammed begins to explore some deeper themes as they question why the department for transport really appointed them.

Mohammed draws upon their experiences of ‘positive discrimination’ within a governmental department. As they overhear colleagues discussing themselves as the best fit to present to ministers because they do ‘tick all the boxes’ with regards to their race and sexual orientation. The audience also see uncomfortable conversations between Mohammed and their director (dictator) Beverley as she struggles to accept or understand Mohammed’s non-binary pronouns. This commentary is powerful, something too may of us have struggled with or witnessed as the world progresses yet far too many people seem left behind.

Mohammed is at their best when being brash and delivering one-liners. The biggest audience laugh came when Dominic Cummings was referred to as a “sentient turnip”. However, whilst their social commentary is sharp and necessary to hear, there are some parts of the show that felt a little lost and could perhaps have used some expanding. Talk of lost friends is mentioned and whilst this has potential to be extremely moving, the sentiment appears to be rushed and as a result gets swallowed up amongst the rest of the fast-moving show.

This one-person show uses a screen to introduce additional characters. We see colleagues on zoom calls, and this works extremely well. By the sounds of the audience laughs, far too many of us can relate to the awkward and cringe inducing work zoom calls that were shown on screen. For the most part the use of this screen is well executed and allows for the show to be varied and interesting. However, some uses of the screen fell flat including a sketch imitating old Hollywood during a presentation to ministers which didn’t particularly work for me. Some of the use of video, such as a BBC news clip felt a little too long interrupting the fast-moving wit and charisma expelled by Mohammed.

Having said this, Cybil Service is still an exciting and fresh story that needs to be told. Examining the routine of a 9-5 life and how our lives revolve around this routine is clearly one that resonates with the audience. Add in some spiky yet funny social commentary around organisational discrimination and homophobia and we see not only a funny a witty and sometimes crude show but one that has a lot of important statements to make. Cybil Service is poignant, funny and smart, making it a wonderful cocktail of a show.


Cybil Service plays as part of the Vault Festival until Friday 10th February. The festival continues until March, tickets and full listings can be found here- VAULT Festival

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