The Royal Variety Performance is a glitzy, annual televised quintessential annual British institution where senior members of the Royal Family sit through the (allegedly) best that UK has to offer in the way of contemporary popular entertainment. It’s been a staple tradition of show business since King George V and Queen Mary kicked the first one off in 1920, and it shows no sign of waning, even though the present Queen always comes alway looking thoroughly bored.
On the other hand Jonny Woo, one of East London’s leading alternative drag performers, hosts his Un-Royal Variety Show, only in its 2nd year, as an attempt to present an alternative to this and it is truly a different kettle of fish altogether. It is, however, perfectly at home at the Hackney Empire – a Matcham designed gem of a theatre – glorious, but with such an overdone gold rococo interior it is verging on the ridiculous.
The first of two sold out shows goes up late, and it falls to drag royalty Lavinia Co-op to open the show with some spoken word, the bitter sweet Can You Spare Some Change. Later she will give moving testimony about the time Jonny was sitting in a gay bar in New York. and how she lured him into his very first frock.
Frank Lavender was a more traditional kind of ‘northern bloke’ comedian in a three piece suit. A slightly off color joke about Madeleine McCann didn’t sit well with the alt-cabaret context, but it turns out Frank is the alter ego of Myra Dubois – a new character she was trying out for tonight and played perhaps a tad too convincingly?
Peter & Bambi take the Vegas magic act to whole new level of ludicrousness. The sword through a box gag was magic circle worthy but also riotously crafted with a cheesy, almost 70’s vibe.
A highlight of the first half was the Kate Middleton choir (18 ‘women’ identically dressed as the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge) conducted by Woo singing All That She Wants (Is Another Baby) by Ace of Bass; Love of the Common People by Paul Young and Born This Way by Gaga. The sheer joy of this diverse, ‘real people’ ensemble who only came together for this show was plain to see, and meant the satire was understated but still had a glorious edge to it.
Myra Dubois is a stalwart of the drag scene and dare I say an old school stand up – very funny and pin sharp – showing how inclusive the programming is – no Hoxton Hipster clusterfuck this.
We were honored with a song from Le Gateau Chocolat fresh from roles at the National Theatre (Threepenny Opera) and a publicity devouring part in Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night at The Globe. Gateau’s warm but immensely powerful baritone gave Four Women by Nina Simone the potency it deserves.
As with any multi-artist cabaret, there are some highs and some lows and in this show there are one or two acts which are indelibly imprinted on the mind like a welders blowtorch. Leah Shelton is one of those acts. She tip toes on dressed as a wolf towing an innocent looking Bambi. Bambi it turns out gets bashed apart like a piñata and then voraciously eaten. Its Disney meets the Walking Dead and it’s shocking and hilarious at the same time.
Other notable acts include Christeene and her butt plug adorned with helium balloons; Jayde Adams getting the whole auditorium on their feet for I Just Wanna Fucking Dance and we must mention Lucy McCormick singing Search for the Hero (Inside Yourself) whilst her dolly assistants Ted and Lennie reveal exactly where they keep their Cadbury’s Heroes chocolates! Yum!
The very first Royal Variety Show featured Vesta Tilley – the most famous male impersonator of her age. So maybe Jonny Woo’s shows are less of a revolution but rather an authentic return to its glorious, golden and ridiculous beginnings. Long may it continue.
P.S. The video below is from the 2016 Show although it does feature several of the same performers.
Review by queerguru correspondent Jonny Ward ©
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