Absurd stories, crazy outfits and mangled music.

By: Feb. 17, 2024
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Review: DINA MARTINA: SUB-STANDARDS, Soho Theatre Flying in from the States for her eighth time at Soho Theatre, Seattle-based performer Dina Martin debuts her new show Sub-Standards. It takes some skill to straddle performance art, clowning, drag and stand-up with skill and wit but she never looks uncomfortable. And nor should she with her considerable pedigree and following.

Famed for her longevity and depravity, Grady West’s creation has a raft of celebrity fans in the US including Jennifer Coolidge, Graham Norton and Dan Savage. Author and journalist David Schmader famously depicted her with these words: “Her voice sounds like a cat having an epileptic fit on a chalkboard, her body moves like two pigs fighting their way out of a sleeping bag, and her face looks like the collision of a Maybelline truck with a Shoney's buffet.” That was in 1999 and, twenty-five years on, that description is still valid.

Over here, Dina has built up a cult following and is one of those acts who is well known to those who know her well and revel in her horrifying tales, outré outfits, personalised videos, assassinated songs and verbal tics. To newbies, her garish appearance should be the first clue that this isn’t just another drag show. Her clownish makeup and sunny demeanour are in severe contrast to her pitch-black humour and, this time around, she regales us with tales of extreme hoarding, disgusting pot luck contests and infinity toilets where the water reaches up to the WC’s brim.

The Soho Theatre downstairs space can sometimes be the most charming gay bar in town with LGBT cabaret acts from all points of the compass welcomed over the years. They come here for an always-appreciative audience who huddle together around cabaret tables, some to be gently amused, others to be tenderly abused (no judgement here). In Martina’s hilariously unloving embrace, this crowd can expect a bit of both. 

The Dean Street venue hit the headlines this week due to Paul Currie’s frankly unforgivable behaviour in his Shtoom show. Any notion that this would mean a policy of less outrageous behaviour go out of the basement’s non-existent window as soon as la Martina settles into her first bit around dead goldfish and an emaciated dog she finds in her home.

Dina’s use of sound and vision are inspired. Classic songs are brutalised and, in the case of Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film”, outright murdered. She contorts the lyrics to her own ends, throwing up ludicrous and possibly illegal scenarios where once only innocent words existed. When she needs to go off for a costume change, she pops on a reel of edited scenes from vintage movies like Gone With The Wind and It’s A Wonderful Life with her face and words inserted for comic effect. The costumes themselves are a carefully crafted collision of styles; one dress has a hemline under her chin while another “steampunk” concoction comes with an outer bra made of Venetian masks below the usual feathered top hat and goggles.

She deploys language as a weapon of mass distraction. At its best, her viciously vivid imagery - her description of meatloaf adorned with “chocolate polyps” is almost enough to make vegetarians of us all - veers into perverse poetry at times. She retains many of the vocal mannerisms we've seen before. Her many mispronunciations (for example, Seattle is enunciated as “See-tall”, soft Gs are pronounced hard and hard Gs are soft) go from cute to grating by the time she says in her casually acerbic manner that “for a while, I must admit that I’ve been waiting…to say joodbye to you all” and tells us to “jo, jo jo” as she ushers us out into the night.  

Sub-Standards doesn’t push Martina’s career envelope to any great degree but still serves as a superb introduction to one of this century’s finest drag clowns.

Dina Martina's Sub-Standards continues at Soho Theatre until 24 February.