Fittingly, ‘Sound of the Underground’ resists definition and genre. Neither entirely theatre, nor entirely cabaret, it is triumphantly queer. It brings a loud, proud drag culture into the Royal Court, with performers that are self-consciously far removed from the shiny reality TV of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. Vauxhall has moved its bags into Sloane Square.
Written by Travis Alabanza – whose smash hit debut show ‘Burgerz’ explored societal complicity in transphobia – the show brings eight performers on stage in surreal scenes that send up the self-importance of mainstream theatre, before pulling back the curtain on the harsh reality of life on stage, as well as the complex impact of mainstreaming drag performance.
As co-created and directed by Debbie Hannan, this is a colourfully sprawling – sometimes verging into baggy – show. Woven into its spectacle and set-pieces is an electrically charged anger at the near impossibility of sustaining a liveable career in the arts. It also targets the blind-eyed faddishness of people who will click and clap non-binary, trans and queer drag artists, but are nowhere to be seen when their lives are questioned, threatened or attacked.
This outrage is threaded through a lot of sharp, often extremely funny humour. There’s a buzz in seeing the likes of Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot sardonically eyeing up the audience before borrowing a lighter. Mwice Kavindele, as Sadie Sinner the Songbird, and Lilly SnatchDragon light up the stage with their burlesque while never letting us forget the fetishisation of the colour of their ethnicity.
The political and the performative are intertwined here in a show written by Alabanza, with contributions and improvs from the performers. This includes a sequence in which they lip-sync to their own personal views about the state of their industry and the challenges they’ve faced. The ‘Drag Race’ juggernaut comes in for a lot of criticism, for smoothing out and pigeon-holing what drag can – and should – be. This is perfectly fair, but it’s most interesting in the ambivalent moments, when some concede they’d still take part.
Sue Gives a Fuck is a drolly foul-mouthed compere of the show’s cabaret-esque second half, reintroducing each act while giving us a potted history of underground queer culture dating back to the eighteenth century. The performances move along at a clip, as you’d expect, but it’s drag king Chiyo – the first trans man to compete for Mr Gay UK – that stands out. His raw and heartrending upending of his own act, halfway through it, leads to a moving moment of pain, defiance and hope that brings the show into focus.
As Sue says, pain grows depth and love grows height. This production isn’t perfectly polished and it’s self-indulgent in places. But its imperfections – its sprawl – are part of its point. It’s deliberately showing us the mess behind the curtain. It won’t be for everyone. It’s not trying to be. But there’s an anarchic energy written into it. If you’ve ever felt unrepresented on stage, take a trip underground.