Review by Harry Bower
The overwhelming feeling I have sitting down to write this review is one of urgency. Not because I have a deadline to turn in these words but because the subject matter of Sound of the Underground inspires genuine confrontation, panic and urgency in its audience.
Travis Alabanza’s new show takes place at the Royal Court, and the theatre’s reputation and name is used throughout the performance to make a point. The show is broken down into three Acts, with an interval sandwiched between Act 2 and 3. Eight drag performers spring into life as the lights go down, storming in from the back of the stalls and flirting with audience members. What follows is a brief and humorous introduction into each performer - Each one a legend in their own right.
In the show I was at, Midgitte Bardot, played by Tammy Reynolds, was absent. A clever pre-recorded voiceover and giant card-board cut-out was used in her stead, a relatively novel way of ensuring a member of the cast with a disability can feature even when their body needs a rest.
Open Act 1. We see a traditional play format, set in a kitchen/dining room in which the performers gather with increasingly elaborate excuses for being late. This is the part of the show which is the most wooden in dialogue and pace, though things soon ramp up as the plot is revealed – to kill RuPaul in revenge for commercialising and diluting the art form of drag. It is at this stage the show begins to grow into itself. Though it is slow and certainly the weakest part of the show, there is an important need for the juxtaposition of the standard and more traditional play format to setup the following two acts for maximum and effective impact.
In Act 2, things get more serious. The audience are treated what can only be described as an audiobook documentary of clips from interviews with the cast members about the world of drag, their art, and what is happening to it, as well as the opportunity for them to participate in this production at the Royal Court. As the audio is being played, cast members lip sync to their own words and the words of colleagues.
While the lip syncing is going on, the set we’ve just witnessed in Act 1 is being completely dismantled in front of our eyes. Flooring is being rolled up, flats flown into the wings, costume changes taking place and techs beavering away setting up the next scenes. It is this physical dismantling of walls and barriers; of set, which allows the audience to feel even more connected to the words being spoken about true lived experiences. This Act is literally tearing down the walls, and letting us in. It’s beautiful and incredibly well written. As with much of this show it’s also tremendously honest and unafraid of making the audience feel uncomfortable.
Act 3 is more traditionally cabaret, each performer with their own number; a striptease or a dance of some sort – each very high quality with a truly super lighting design by Simisola Majekodunmi to set them up. Costumes, lighting and sound come together to accompany this cast in the most creative of ways. If you’re not okay with strobe lighting then you’ll need the relaxed performance scheduled for 18 February, because this show uses and abuses it so so well.
It's only the end of the final act in which we are brought back down to earth with a crash with a moving and thought-provoking piece by Chiyo, focusing on what it means to truly be an ally and whether or not it’s right for audiences to cheer for the entertainment provided, but not stand up for what’s right in day-to-day life.
This show covers so many topics in the spotlight right now – it is so relevant. When throughout the show the arts sector is criticised for not paying its performers and artists enough, it isn’t lost on the audience that this is a much wider issue demonstrated recently by Equity’s Stand Up For 17 campaign which launched this month.
It aggressively confronts the audience on issues like trans and drag performer safety, capitalism, the exploitative nature of entertainment, and the soul of drag performance being murdered by the corporate machine. By breaking the fourth wall, not just in its dialogue but in its direct appeal to its audience, the show has a powerful message which, when reflected upon, is actually pretty tragic.
To use a perhaps simplistic metaphor, Sound of the Underground is like a rallying cry from the balcony of the Titanic from someone who’s spotted the iceberg in the distance, in clear view, but with no way of alerting the Captain of the ship. It is a desperate plea for awareness and reaction. The commercialisation of drag, the watering down of opinion and authenticity, the rising expense in buying costumes thanks to big budget TV shows…these are all petals from the same flower. And it is a flower with a group of experienced gardeners stood there watching it slowly wither but with no way to revive it alone.
It may not surprise you to learn from this review that the author is not the authority on drag history. As a white cisgender heterosexual man in his late twenties, I could easily fall into the cross section of audience which it seems these characters are so concerned about, driving the drag scene into wreck and ruin and leaving everyone high and dry when the public interest switches to a new ‘craze’. As Sue Gives a F***, our MC, says, people just love bingo: drag or no drag.
But actually, I feel optimistic having been part of two hours of dragucation. (Education, drag, see what I did there?). This show isn’t about sitting and wallowing in pity or depression about what might come to pass. It is a celebration. A joyous celebration which makes no apologies for being warts-and-all. It’s educational and it’s fun.
It needs to be said that the performers in this show leave absolutely nothing in the locker. They bring it all out onto stage and blew me away with their talents. Without giving away any spoilers just wait until you hear Ms Sharon Le Grand’s ballad in Act 3, and see Wet Mess’ cabaret performance. Both are genuinely stunning. Shout out also to the stage management team who are on and off the stage during the production so much they almost deserve a cast credit.
The narrative in Sound of the Underground loosely refers throughout to a tree growing in the sunlight. The deeper the sadness, the deeper the roots. The deeper the roots, the taller the tree. Assuming a tall tree is equivalent to success, this show’s tree is about a hundred foot tall. It is a triumph of a tree, and I’m thankful I had the opportunity to witness a small part of its growth.
Sound Of The Underground plays at Royal Court until 25th February. Tickets from https://royalcourttheatre.com
Photos by Helen Murray