Sound of the Underground review and star rating: ★★★★☆
“The drag brunches are very heavy.” It’s one of the drag confessions in Sound Of The Underground, Travis Alabanza’s Royal Court play, a provocative, emotional testament to the artform.
Performed in a non-queer space to largely wealthy West London audiences, Alabanza understands the power of this stage – something drag has never had before. Across this ecstatic, tragic play the performing troupe asks difficult questions about workers’ rights, queer mental health and arts funding. But it’s hilarious and barn storming too: the essential drag play we’ve needed for decades.
The Cheeky Girls sung in Phantom of the Opera style? There’s an incredible power to seeing this tomfoolery at the Royal Court
Given the setting, Alabanza – a prominent queer playwright who uses they/them pronouns – could have felt the pressure to stage a traditional play, or to make some lofty statement about how, actually, drag queens can act too. But they have instead written a drag show with a few traditional acting segments; stuffed full with mesmerising performances, it proves to be a potent mix.
There are too many standouts to mention them all, but Ms Sharon Le Grand’s songs are mesmeric: her belting the Girls Aloud’s titular Sound Of The Underground with her rich bass sends a haunting message; later, her Cheeky Girls rendition is the sort of bizarre brilliance – Shirley Bassey/Phantom of the Opera-style, according to the notes – that you’d see in an east London club. There’s an incredible power to seeing it at the Royal Court.
The broadest message? That the potential for drag on West End stages has barely begun to be tapped
As for the structured parts, in act one the performers play themselves on a traditional theatre set of an ordinary kitchen, where they’ve gathered to discuss going on strike over working conditions. Hilariously, and perhaps a little too pointedly, RuPaul is the target, vilified for making drag mainstream and presenting a singular vision of cis men as drag. A green, lifesize, alien-like stuffed Ru is ripped to shreds, money pouring out of him, as the set is deconstructed and the acts are seen cleaning up. It’s a brilliant meta experiment showing the disparity of the lives of underpaid artists: one minute they’re doing serious acting in fabulous gowns, the next they’re folding up carpet on their hands and knees.
While most of Alabanza’s writing has the genius of sounding like it’s written without anything being overthought, a bit about pay – shockingly, the acts reveal they each are paid £75 per performance – that leads to a bucket collection around the audience feels passive-aggressive and would have been better suited at the end of the show. Alabanza doesn’t hide that this is a punk play; that’s the one misfire. The rest is perfectly barbed.
Alabanza’s stipulations when they agreed to write a play for the Court was that they wouldn’t hire drama school-trained actors as a middle finger to the establishment, helping democratise these spaces for drag artists who may have felt out of place. You might wonder if that’d hamper the quality of performance, but then you realise that, of course, no drag queens have been traditionally trained. Their art is almost exclusively found in the basements of clubs, or, thanks to RuPaul, commodified by straight women for their parties (“hen dos are multiplying like cockroaches,” someone despairs).
There could not be a better cast, each of this troupe a legend of the London club scene.
Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot, Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird and CHIYO show their acting chops can compete with drama-school-trained folk. The broadest message? That the potential for drag on West End stages has barely begun to be tapped.
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