'Sound of the Underground' review — a full-bodied celebration of the drag scene

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It’s party time at the Royal Court, though be aware that this full-bodied, full-throated evening knows a thing or two about pain as well.

Not that you’d necessarily expect that from the evening’s ribald, raucous start, whereby the eight drag performers who comprise the cast make their way to the stage from different levels and corners of the auditorium: they’re happy, we’re told, to be “above the ground for once”.

That’s to say, occupying a theatre renowned for new writing that usually pays much more attention to authorial concerns like structure for which this show has scant regard — and which unashamedly tells us as much as its comparatively freeform prologue-plus-three-acts sashays along.

And so we have Travis Alabanza’s play, co-created with its director, Debbie Hannan. Equal measures celebratory yet also cautionary, a full-on knees-up rooted in both the pleasure principle and identity politics, Sound of the Underground thrums with deliberate, delicious impertinence.

After all, it’s not every day you see a play whose cast bemoan their pay (£75 per show), with the theatre management very much in attendance: the true subsidy, we are reminded afresh, within the subsidised theatre comes from the performers themselves.

You understand immediately why Tammy Reynolds’s formidable Midgitte Bardot – entering in a wild-haired wig Cyndi Lauper would kill for – or Lily Snatchdragon, to cite just two of a fully adrenalised company, might not have much time for the moneyed community that exists just beyond the theatre’s doors. Complacency is one enemy; commodification of their art another.

It’s worth remembering anew the disconnect long implicit in the Court’s pioneering, anti-bourgeois aesthetic (this is the place that gave us Blasted and Shopping and Fucking) and the good burghers of one of the most salubrious sections of London. Look Back in Anger put the Court on the map back in the day, and Sound of the Underground looks directly in anger at an often cruel, aesthetically anaesthetised world, where no less a figure than RuPaul comes in for a level of rancour that leads to thoughts of murder.

The evening’s first half, it must be said, still feels like a work-in-progress: a catalogue of grievance in place of the “OUR PLAY” (as the script puts it) that is excitedly described at the prologue’s close. Making excuses for a belated arrival, Sue Gives A F*** gets a stand-out reminiscence about a misadventure that has taken place with a married man in Hampstead, but much of what else transpires pre-interval feels like (perfectly legitimate) point-scoring in the absence of both a play and – surprising, given the talent on view – the genuinely playful.

After the interval, we get a lushly costumed cabaret presided over by the invaluable Sue GAF in emcee mode alongside a historical survey of queer culture over time.

Reference to the permissive “molly houses” of old put me in mind of Mother Clap’s Molly House, the Mark Ravenhill play on this topic from 2001 that was first directed by Nicholas Hytner for the National Theatre.

Sound of the Underground gives us the era-defining Girls Aloud song that you might suggest, without ever locating within the raw material any definable narrative arc. Instead, the acts themselves come fast and furious from all concerned, a fan dance of sorts here or an emotionally (sometimes even physically) naked confessional there, laying bare the quest for family that exists beneath the frivolity.

I’ll long remember the more choice one-liners – “soirée is the French word for chemsex party,” advises Sue GAF, whose way with innuendo could well land this pre-Raphaelite beauty a job alongside Ian McKellen in Mother Goose. But the closing set piece is given to the drag king CHIYO, the first Trans man to compete for Mr Gay UK, and it packs a wallop.

What happens as and when these people emerge into a light that may not like what it sees? “Then we will eventually fall in between the cracks,” CHIYO concludes, with only the embrace of the theatre curtain, and the family that goes with it, to offer solace, comfort and, on a most basic level, sustenance.

Sound of the Underground is at the Royal Court through 25 February. Book Sound of the Underground tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Sound of the Underground cast (Photo by Helen Murray)

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