Thursday, 10 August 2017

REVIEW: Iconic: A Brief History of Drag at The Underbelly Festival


Disclaimer: In this review I use Drag related terminology and will be foot-noting as I go along. 

Drag queens are everywhere now a days. We’re watching them on our TVs, we’re watching them in our theatres and we’re quoting them in our every day lives, well I know I certainly am. For the past 14 weeks a group of friends and I have got together on a Saturday night and watched the latest instalment of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m addicted to it and have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one. Drag has been in our theatrical culture for a long time; the term drag was first coined by Shakespeare meaning ‘Dressed As a Girl' and for it’s varietal season The Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank, tonight, brings us ‘ICONIC: A brief History of Drag’. School is in and it’s time to educate these chicks* and fangirls in what it’s all about. The ‘Herstory*’ lesson has begun, this is drag 101. ‘Yas Gawd*’ ‘You better werk*’ and ‘Sissy that walk*’ are all compliments that are flying through my mind as the show begins. 

I’m going to get the negative over and done with, because it’s tiny but not without notice. This isn’t a history lesson in drag as a whole art form, there is no explanation of where the term drag came from, there is no decade by decade explanation of how drag has come to be in the mainstream. We’re basking in a golden age of gender fluidity and the renaissance of drag; how we got here wasn’t explained. That is the ONLY negative. Now that’s over with on with the praise. 

Brought to life by Ian Stroughair, Velma Celli is a pure delight, well, as much as a drag queen can be a delight. Stroughair’s drag is androgynous; no fake breasts, no big pageant wig but his face is beat* and covered in glitter, dressed in a tutu and a corset he is ready to slay*. 

Velma’s vocal is simply perfection. Soaring over notes and making each song 
she sings seem like an easy job. Yet as Velma stands there and sings this is a performance that is brave and laced with vulnerability; we’re not just watching a collection of some of the best songs which have been sung by drag parts in musicals; we are, in fact watching someones soul that has been built up influenced by these iconic parts. I soon come to the realisation this isn’t a brief history of drag, this is a brief history of the discovery of self. 

Stand out songs amongst the playlist were: ‘The Sex is in The Heel’ from Kinky Boots the most recent drag sequin in the West End’s theatrical dress. ‘Strangers in This World’ from the Biopic Musical of Boy George’s life and ‘Sissy That Walk’ the dance hit by famous drag supermodel RuPaul. 

There are three things a drag queen needs; Comedy, Performance and Audience participation and Velma ticked all three of these. A nice addition to this was the special guests appearances of Jessie Wallace and Kerry Ellis. 

‘Iconic’ was decorated with underscoring and history lessons of gay culture and finished with the iconic song of ‘I Will Survive’. 

This show was such a feel good night and a great display of the talent that resides in the drag community. Velma Celli is a star of the circuit, and should be enjoyed by everyone again and again and again. 

Review by James-Lee Campbell

Rating: ★★★★★

Footnotes:
Yes Gawd - An exclamation of adoration and support
Chick - A young gay person
Herstory: History appertaining to gay culture
‘Werk’ - Work/ A celebration of good work
‘Sissy That Walk’ - Own the stage
‘Slay’ - Be the best at what you’re doing
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