Review by Sam Waite
Despite its increasing prominence in mainstream culture, drag is still largely an underground art form. While RuPaul and co. have pushed countless drag queens into the public consciousness, some even as far as West End and Broadway stages, the pop culture zeitgeist has yet to be quite as accepting, or even aware, of drag kings. As the inversion of the name suggests, these are performers, usually female-presenting, whose attire represents a caricatured, exaggerated version of traditional masculinity. This is, of course, a reductive and narrow description, but as with the queens, what the kings behind Gaggle do is not easily defined.
Central to Gaggle is a quartet of performers whose stars are in the ascent – quite literally, as per their Star Wars-esque text crawl opening’s acknowledgement of the show now being Upstairs at Soho Theatre, having last appeared Downstairs. Each of these kings has his own unique style of presentation and performance, and each performs their own numbers, framed by segues involving banter between two or more of the group.
The evening also featured brief performances by other drag artists – Die Lemma and Sonny Delight both delivered delightfully deranged numbers. While Sonny’s over-emotive, almost balletic movement piece did a fabulous job of balancing serious art with comedic intent, the show was briefly stolen by Die Lemma’s original song, recorded in a robotic monotone, about the joys of oral sex.
As for Gaggle themselves, the first solo work from the titular troupe came from Father JC, a devout Christian minister who had just recently learned about drag. Drag Race, he tells us, was shown to him as an introduction and is hosted by two twins – blonde bombshell Ru and her handsome brother Paul, though you never do see them together. Along with “blessing” the show to come, Father JC bemoans losing his suitcase on route before showing off some of the news vestiges he found in a lovely shop across the road (Soho’s Prowler… if you don’t know, protect your innocence). The whole thing is, of course, absurd and hysterical, and delivered with gusto by JC.
Spoiler Rotten, a less traditionally “male”-presenting king, wields both masculinity and femininity, like weapons in risqué dance numbers. Alternating between laddish banter with the crowd and exposing near-naked breasts from under his construction-worker wardrobe, Spoiler is arguably the most underground and unconventional of the acts and owns the stage whenever he’s front and centre. A running joke emerges in which Spoiler and fellow king Papa Parmigiano, the two most overtly sensual members of Gaggle, begin a tortured affair off- and nearly on-stage.
Papa himself, boasting a merrily ludicrous Italian accent and pulling pasta out of every item of clothing in a reverse strip tease – “yeah, put it on!” an audience member bellowed – stakes his claim to the title of “the sexy one”. Raunchy, audience-focused, and always full of high-crab surprises, Papa proved to be a major hit with the crowd. He also proved to be excellent at filling the time needed to prep for the next number, with his constant flirting with both kings and audience members keeping the room engaged and entertained.
Finally, the “wholesome one” took to the stage – Bi-Curious George first appears in an effort to claim Papa Parmigiano’s lusty position, providing a deliberately awkward striptease in which he undoes the zips below his knees to allow his functional Steve Irwin-inspired ensemble to become… well, the same but with shorts. Later, George would return to introduce us to Queer Planet, not only a number in which various queer stereotypes – Doc Martins, mullets, and septum piercings on this particular evening – but also a plug for his Vault Festival Show of the same name. Managing to match his cohort’s humour without being quite as sexual, George proved to be an excellent palate cleanser before the troupe re-assembled for a closing dance number and speech.
An obvious crowd-pleaser, Gaggle feels indescribably more authentic than the increasingly commercialised version of drag culture mainstream audiences have been shown more and more in recent years. As queer culture becomes more accepted and accessible, it is important that continued support is given to this kind of evening, where members of a community can gather and support one another, while being entertained all the while.
Gaggle make their next appearance at the Vault Festival, with tickets available at https://vaultfestival.com/performances/gaggle
Photos by James King