Review: SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND, Royal Court Theatre

Travis Alabanza's queer night out is not to be missed

By: Jan. 27, 2023
Review: SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND, Royal Court Theatre
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Review: SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND, Royal Court Theatre When we think of the Royal Court, we tend to think of prestige, of Writers with a capital W, of theatre for theatre people. We do not tend to think of a drag artist in a huge pink skirt singing a dramatic, heartfelt rendition of "The Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)".

Sound of the Underground, co-created by Travis Alabanza and Debbie Hannan, unleashes queer chaos on the historic theatre. Over the course of three acts, a cast of real London drag performers use every weapon in their arsenal to shed light on the realities of the city's dying queer nightlife scene, the commercialisation of drag, the persistence of homophobia and transphobia, and the lack of money in the arts... but they have a lot of fun in doing so.

As the curtain rises for the start of the show, we are presented with a sleek modern kitchen, realistic in every way. The cast gradually enter dressed in smart, neutral-coloured outfits, arriving for a union meeting, and speak with long, dramatic pauses. This is, as the script describes it, 'The Play' - it's every inch what we'd expect at the Royal Court. Very quickly, however, it becomes evident that this is a facade. The performers create a kind of parody of contemporary drama without it ever feeling like parody, instead twisting tropes and patterns in on themselves until the form finally implodes.

The 'serious drama' eventually falls apart with one spectacular reveal - the reason for this union meeting is a plot to kill RuPaul. Suddenly, the stage is overtaken by camo-clad military havoc, and the real stories bubbling under the surface burst through. A gleeful queer rebellion is afoot.

The show's second act, entitled 'The Business' shifts further away from the world of traditional theatre. Joining the stage management team, the cast tidy away the chaos of the RuPaul mission, before beginning to lip-sync their own interviews about the realities of drag, of work, and of money. Precise, engaging, and honest, it gets across the nuance and real-life stories behind the show without feeling stilted or preachy. The use of lip-syncing and choreography to get these ideas across is also a stroke of genius, using a common form of drag act to interrogate it.

After the interval, we are in a new world. Surrounded by pink silk, drag queen Sue Gives a F*ck announces that we are no longer in a theatre, but a club. It's time to watch these artists do what they do best.

A beautifully constructed cabaret unfolds, as audience members woop and clap and stamp their feet: this is a queer party, an explosion of music and colour. There's burlesque, there's lip-syncing, there's rap, there's striptease, there's even a song about piss. It's outrageous, a fever dream in the best possible way, and surely like nothing the Royal Court has seen before. It's also just joyous to watch: it's clear that everyone both onstage and off is having a huge amount of fun.

Halfway through drag king CHIYO's act, however, the music stops. The performer delivers a raw, hard-to-watch speech: 'It's all work isn't it', he says, escalating to a desperate 'where the fuck is everyone when we actually need you'. The dream is over; the balloon has been popped. This is the magic of having real-life artists perform as essentially themselves: everything feels genuine and true, making it impossible not to listen and to care.

Each member of the cast brings something truly unique: CHIYO is given the emotional crux of the show, while also offering a swaggering confidence in the first half. Sue Gives a F*ck acts as a compere for the cabaret section, holding the audience rapt throughout. Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird and Rhys Hollis as Rhys's Pieces comfortably take the lead for 'The Play' section, while Wet Mess leads 'The Business' with a mesmerising energy. Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot is hugely watchable, bringing absolute chaos to their every move, while Ms Sharon Le Grand delivers a standout drag performance moment and Lilly SnatchDragon lights up the stage every time she walks on. It's clear that everyone on stage is a fantastic performer in their own right, making it all the more exciting when their individual talents are combined.

In many ways, the show's use of form is especially impressive. There are no rules here, but each idea, each story, each message is delivered in a way tailored to what it is trying to say. While the structure can feel confusing at points, and there's undoubtedly a lot going on, it all ties together in a meaningful way, making it clear that the changing tones and techniques have all been selected for a reason.

It feels important to note that in the show, and more extensively in the script, its creators and performers speak openly about the financial side of theatre and drag. Hannan writes about how they thought carefully about how people were credited, how much each team member was paid, and where the money the show made really ended up. This all adds to the show's impact as a message to and about the arts industries, as we are shown that things were done differently not only on stage, but off too.

Sound of the Underground is a piece of theatre, a drag cabaret, something in between and something entirely other. What makes it such a success is that it never tries to be one thing; it's deliberately impossible to summarise in a sentence. Alabanza and Hannan have created an expansive, extraordinary piece of queer art that has to be seen to be believed.

Sound of the Underground runs at the Royal Court until 25 February

Photo Credit: Helen Murray




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