East London drag titan Jonny Woo is currently perfecting his third ‘Un-Royal Variety’ show, a massive annual extravaganza that takes over the grand old Hackney Empire for two nights later this month. He says it’s taken him a decade of building his reputation and performing at progressive venues – including Soho Theatre, the ICA and his own Haggerston hangout The Glory – to produce a show on this scale.
‘After working in London for all these years, I’ve got such a great network of amazing contemporary performers now,’ he says. ‘And I don’t think the queer performance art scene has been this strong in the last 20 years. It’s just incredible, and I think that’s because of the wider conversations we’re having about gender identity and politics. People want stages to share their ideas, and as soon as there’s something to fight against, their voices become stronger.’
Woo has gathered more than 80 of his favourite stage-slaying contemporaries to create a show that’s conceived as an irreverent pastiche of the fusty old televised ‘Royal Variety Show’. ‘It’s a format that feels very established and very safe, but I knew we could do something great by injecting some danger into it,’ he says. With this in mind, he’s booked sets from savage drag stand-up Myra DuBois, operatic cabaret singer Le Gateau Chocolat, feminist dancer-comedian Adrienne Truscott, fast-rising comedians Jayde Adams and Mawaan Rizwan, drag legend Lavinia Co-op, break-out star Margo Marshall and satirical cabaret duo Bourgeois & Maurice. He’s even assembled a ‘Theresa May Choir’ featuring 20 female performers dressed head-to-toe as the Brexit-weathered PM. Woo hasn’t quite finished writing their song yet, but he says it will ‘probably reference robot-dancing and kitten heels’.
Meanwhile, punky cabaret queen Lucy McCormick and self-styled ‘drag terrorist’ Christeene are planning an utterly wild, one-of-a-kind duet. ‘At the moment there are drones involved,’ says Woo. ‘They did want to scale down the side of the theatre but I don’t know if that’s possible.’
Whatever happens on the night, Woo says punters should expect a show like no other in London. ‘It’s a showcase for talent that’s punk and political, warm and fuzzy, and really funny all at the same time. I know there will be moments where your horizons will be totally blown apart.’
Jonny Woo’s ‘Un-Royal Variety’ is at Hackney Empire. Oct 19-20.
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