Yes, it’s a Girls Aloud reference, and if your understanding of the world of drag and queer art only reaches that heavily sanitised and commercialised level seen in pop music and hit shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race (a product literally ripped to shreds in Travis Alabanza and Debbie Hannan’s play), then this show is essential viewing. It dispels that immediately, in a way which queer performance must always be: subversive.
To summarise Sound of the Underground as an experience is not to be pretentious (though I imagine the vibrant company would welcome a cheeky bit of that if it was), but to be accurate in describing what ultimately defies any label, category or description – as it should. The first act only just scrapes through as a standard play with dialogue, a set, and a basic plot (to kill), beginning with some of the cast members clamouring to the stage which is rightfully theirs. Phones are very much encouraged, as well.
Over time, said stage is stripped bare and broken down (the symbolism is typical from lyrical playwright Alabanza) until all that’s left is the voice, a testimony impressively lip-synced by the cast for several minutes. What starts with brilliant and outrageous highs (a military sequence is so utterly ridiculous, it’s baffling in the best way), soon descends to devastating lows against the backdrop of financial insecurity.
It does that a lot, but God, is it effective. The glitz, glamour and pomp is delightfully dazzling, before stark monologues about the bastardisation of drag and the vicious cycle it propagates. In reducing drag to a commodity and not an act of rebellion, the art form is devalued and the pay is dire – pay which is necessary, as Chiyo explains in his blistering final monologue, in order to fund the surgery and healthcare which they need to thrive. People take from the queer community; rarely do they give.
The criticism of the passive straight ally all too happy to support rainbows and drag events but to remain silent around hate crimes is scathing, as the collective descend upon the audience once more for donations and for millionaires to “self-identify”. Shots are also fired at the irony of The Stage writing on the cost of working in the arts behind a paywall, and they’re all too happy to remind viewers they’re being paid just £600 by the Court for a week of shows.
When drag is consumed by what Sue Gives A F*** describes as ‘huns’ (only for them to move onto bingo in time), and when the younger generation of LGBTQIA+ people have their drag education through Drag Race (as noted by Lilly Snatchdragon), the performance art is uprooted. Another Alabanza metaphor blooms as the cast talk about their roots, drag’s roots and what the community really needs to grow and move towards the light. The range of experiences explored and frankly expressed are incredibly compelling and eye-opening. When drag is exploited and solidarity doesn’t go far enough, where do you go next?
Why, underground, of course – in the safety of clubs and venues (the ones which still exist) belonging to the community, a factor far removed from glamorised drag which doesn’t represent drag kings (Chiyo), South Asian acts (Lilly Snatchdragon), Black performers (Rhys’ Pieces and Sadie Sinner the Songbird) and disabled artists (Midgitte Bardot) as much as Sound of the Underground does.
Even then, for a show which takes no prisoners in terms of its commentary, it acknowledges that the production itself could always do more. If act one is the theatrical takedown and educational half, then the cabaret-style second act is the reclamation of what drag always was. Many audience members won’t have seen a drag show like this before.
It very much shines a spotlight on voices from which we, shamefully, haven’t heard a lot from – literally. Here, Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting design is beautiful, awe-inspiring and gorgeously cinematic. Sadie Sinner is an utterly angelic first performer, Wet Mess intriguingly unpredictable, Ms Sharon Le Grand delivers an operatic take on a pop classic which has to be seen to be believed, and Bardot’s act involves a cherry picker and requires no further explanation. The breadth of performances from the physical to the musical is wonderful, but it isn’t long before we’re reminded of the anguish in Chiyo’s aforementioned final monologue. What is the sound of the underground? Well, amongst many other things, it’s an angry, passionate and defiant cry for recognition.
In a sense, to reveal this show as a radical act is almost to blunt some of its edges. Is it better to go in with little knowledge of what will unfold? I’d say it certainly helps (hence why I’ve been light on specific details), as arguably, it’s when we’re caught off-guard that we are the most impressionable. While press night was attended by an ecstatic queer audience, I’d like to think a standard crowd – more inclined to follow etiquette and tradition – will be pleasantly surprised. And good, I say, as they’re meant to be.
Sound of the Underground is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 25 February. Captioned, relaxed, British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted and audio described performances will take place on 8, 18, 22 and 25 February respectively.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Sound of the Underground’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.