May 28: What a drag….

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Drag shows are all the rage, but Death Drop tried only my patience

I’m all for representing queer stories on stage — and especially queer stories told by queer people. Just as we all want — and need — more representations of black lives (and the lives of other people of colour) there, too. The theatre is a place for storytelling of all stripes and shades, those who conform and those who do not; it does not belong to one particular constituency, but to us all.

Given just how massively populated the theatre industry is by LGBTQ folk, it is, however, amazing how comparatively infrequently we get to tell our own stories; of course The Boys in the Band, Bent, Angels in America and The Inheritance have all (eventually) reached Broadway, but it’s slim pickings for over the last half a century, and half those titles, although written by Americans (Martin Sherman’s Bent and Mathew Lopez’s The Inheritance) began in London, while Tony Kushner’s Angels in America also got it first major theatrical outing at London’s National before it was taken to Broadway in a different original production.

Yet if most ordinary queer lives are largely under-represented on our stages, there’s been a long history of offering a drag alternative: the larger-than-life representations of queer lives in dresses, in non-binary colours, from Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles to Hairspray (each by, adapted by and/or starring Harvey Fierstein, who also offered a play Casa Valentina in 2014 about a Catskills resort that offered a weekend retreat for cross-dressers in the 1960s, based on a true story, not all of whom were queer) through to more recent examples in musicals based on films like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Kinky Boots and Head over Heels.

The latter, premiered at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre in 2018, featured Peppermint, an alumna of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who was billed as the first openly transgender woman to originate a major role on Broadway. As Michael Shulman noted in his review for the New Yorker at the time,

Fortuitously, just down Forty-fourth Street, at the Helen Hayes, Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men features two trans actors: Kate Bornstein, the non-binary performer and gender theorist, and Ty Defoe, a two-spirit member of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations. (Their notable predecessor is Justin Vivian Bond, the non-binary cabaret star who headlined Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway, in 2006.) That these three actors are débuting on Broadway in the same week, and in roles that place them in positions not of marginalization but of authority, is worth cheering.

That’s been a seismic change. And now London is catching up, thanks in no small part to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, that seems to provide a seemingly endless parade of drag stars that the public are happy to embrace.

When Death Drop — a drag gloss on The Mousetrap — had its short-lived premiere at the Garrick Theatre in-between lockdowns last December, it starred Drag Race’s Monét X Change and Courtney Act; now it is back, with Latrice Royale (who featured in Series 4 and went on to appear in other incarnations of them franchise, as their programme bo puts it, including RuPaul’s Drag U and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars) and Willam (“disqualified from RuPaul’s Drag Race like a decade ago,” says his bio, which also directs theatregoers to an onlyfans account). They are joined by a host of local drag queens (including Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Myra DuBois, Anna Phylactic and Holly Stars, the latter of whom has also written it) as well as drag kings (LoUis CYfer and Don One).

All of which would be even more welcome if the show itself was any better. It’s the sort of show that is so bad that would close at the interval if it was running on Broadway, but somehow earns a pass (and a stage) in the West End despite the laziness of the script and haziness of the production.

I will acknowledge that the gala night audience I saw it with last night laughed heartily and indiscriminately; but what they were finding funny entirely defeated me; that it took six producing entities — from newcomers in Nimax’s Rising Stars Festival to the new giant Trafalgar Entertainment — to put it on amazes me. Did none of them read the script or even attend a rehearsal?

I can only imagine what a more subtle actor and writer like Broadway’s brilliant Charles Busch could have turned this into, with these resources and this budget.

For those still craving a drag fix after this, however, you can still go to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie — a beautiful (and British) musical about a gay teenager discovering his cross-dressing passion, now in its 3rd year at the Apollo Theatre (and also resuming a national tour at the Lowry in Salford Quays form September 1-12) or the imminent returns of Hairspray (in both the original Broadway staging at the London Coliseum from June 21, with Michael Ball reprising his Olivier winning performance as Edna Turnblad, while a separate production goes out on a new UK tour, launching at Plymouth Theatre Royal from June 24) and Priscilla. Queen of the Desert (resuming a national tour at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre from June 23).

Meanwhile, Nimax’s Rising Stars festival has already last week offered the three-nighter Dra Queens of Pop, while yet another RuPaul star Alyssa Edwards (who featured in season 2), will appear for a week in their show Alyssa Memoirs of a Queen! at the Vaudeville from June 7-13.

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