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How drag is sashaying from cabaret clubs to West End stages

Jonny Woo performing at the National Theatre River Stage in 2017 Jonny Woo performing at the National Theatre River Stage in 2017. Photo: James Bellorini
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While onstage gender reversal has long been a common sight in pantomime, drag has tended to be regarded as a niche style of performance. Artists and producers tell Paul Vale how drag queens are marching in their stillettos from underground clubs to Theatreland’s big stages

In 1983, composer Jerry Herman put drag queens front and centre of a Broadway musical with La Cage Aux Folles. Now, 35 years on, the show’s final number, The Best of Times, could be applied to London’s drag scene, which appears to be undergoing a major renaissance. Once the reserve of the cabaret scene, drag has come out of the clubs and bars to become an important feature of the mainstream British stage.

Singer and songwriter Ty Jeffries, who performs as Miss Hope Springs, explains: “People are more exposed to drag on TV and social media these days. I love that kids watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and get into the cartoony, dress-up side of it without any ideas or judgements about sex or sexuality.

Miss Hope Springs: The Devil Made Me Do It review at Wigmore Hall, London – ‘witty and bittersweet cabaret’

“Drag is a survivor, it shape-shifts and morphs. Especially in the bleak landscape we live in today, drag is sheer escapism.”

The two current big-hitting West End shows featuring performers in drag are Kinky Boots, the Broadway transfer that celebrated its 1,000th performance in January, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the home-grown British musical currently running at the Apollo theatre.

Dig a little deeper and it’s surprising how many more drag or ‘travesty’ roles crop up in British theatre, where female-impersonation is an artistic choice.

Matt Henry and ensemble in Kinky Boots at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Photo: Matt Crockett
Matt Henry and ensemble in Kinky Boots at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Photo: Matt Crockett

Female impersonation has been arching eyebrows since Danny La Rue strutted on stage as Dolly Levi in the 1982 production of Hello, Dolly! and recent examples include Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan snarling his way through Annie and David Suchet’s surprisingly nuanced turn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Even the musical Chicago, which has just opened at the Phoenix Theatre, incorporates the old-school vaudeville drag act in the character Mary Sunshine, while Ruthless!, currently running at the Arts Theatre, features Jason Gardiner as agent Sylvia St Croix.

None of these characters relies on drag to move the plot forward. Audiences don’t need to see the man behind the make-up – we merely accept the illusion, even when it has little to do with conventional glamour, such as with Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull.

Drag’s current popularity owes much to the highly successful television programme RuPaul’s Drag Race, currently in its 10th season, but despite this mainstream positivity, drag remains a relatively marginal pursuit for a performer.

Things are changing, however. The popularity of drag, queer theatre and the increase of gender-fluid productions is opening up whole new avenues of writing.

Two years ago, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe featured Lucy J Skilbeck’s artful Joan, a fusion of new writing and drag cabaret, starring UK drag idol champion Louis Cypher, and in 2017 Prom Kween – from the pen of Rebecca Humphries, Joanna Cichonska and Tim Gardner – celebrated Matthew Crisson’s journey of self-discovery as he determined to be crowned prom queen at his high school.

Perhaps nowhere is this new writing more apparent than at the Glory in Haggerston, run by actor, comedian and drag queen Jonny Woo. The veteran of Latitude, Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe also runs Gay Bingo and brought his Un-Royal Variety show to the Hackney Empire for two nights last year. His venue plays host to a drag king festival, queer karaoke competitions and, within the last year, serious dramatic ventures.

Yet Woo has not dispensed with the alternative drag scene. This year, the artist’s free festival of contemporary drag will be part of the National Theatre’s River Stage festival for the third year running. The Glory programmes a selection of cabaret, drag and performance pieces featuring regular artists that regularly appear at the east London venue.

“The stuff we do at the Glory is quite underground,” Woo says. “We may be singing show tunes but the aesthetic is quite alternative. A lot of people talk to me about drag going mainstream, especially as a result of RuPaul’s Drag Race but that’s not what we do. We are very much under the queer umbrella.”

Performer Jonny Woo: ‘I had a beard, bikini and a wig on, I was really putting myself out there’

Of course, drag continues to be a vibrant and imaginative mainstay of the cabaret world. Artists such La Voix, Hope Springs, Myra Dubois and Holestar continue to flourish. Others are diversifying and stretching their theatrical wings: Le Gateau Chocolat played Feste in Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe, while Woo teamed up with Theatre Angelica alumnus Alexis Gregory for the edgy Sex/Crime at the Glory.

The closure of celebrated London drag venue Madame JoJo’s in 2014 may have seemed like a backwards step but drag has not disappeared – it has simply moved house. Her Upstairs in Camden has become a drag hot spot and its graphic designer Christopher Clegg has set up the UK’s first drag management and production company, Tuck Shop Management.

“Currently we’ve got 14 drag queens on our books and it’s a platform to produce work for them, and to handle their bookings,” he says. “We’ve done it to try to give British drag a leg up, so to speak. Probably the biggest problem with the UK drag scene is that the ones who get paid the most are the American RuPaul girls. They’re brilliant, but they’ll come, do two or three numbers, get paid a hefty sum. But there’ll be a British drag queen who’s there all night doing the door, promoting on social media, and who’s only getting paid £75.”

Tuck Shop also operates an online platform, which includes Tuck Shop TV, as it aims to create a greater online profile for the artists. The first production is a competition called Drag Queen’s Den, in which a selection of drag queens pitch themselves and their act at experts, who then decide whether or not to invest time and mentorship on a single performer.

“It goes from Dragons’ Den to The Voice in style. We’re down to eight girls and there’s a panel of industry experts including social media critics, costume designers and wig designers– a nice mix of professionals that can critique the girls properly and help them build their brand and their show.”

Clegg’s background is as a theatre producer but he has diversified in recent years and has his own drag identity – Miss Rosie Beaver – who has developed a major following through live performances and via London Live’s Drag Queens of London. When it comes to drag representation in the West End, Clegg feels fairly positive.

Miss Rosie Beaver
Miss Rosie Beaver

“I think it’s in a good place. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie captures the British drag scene very well, as there’s that slight melancholy vibe to it. And Hugo, played by Phil Nichol, who runs the drag store, used to be a drag queen. He’s got this vision of being a grand old star and making his big comeback.

“It’s actually a really sweet and quite an honest reflection of the British drag scene. Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] was just ridiculous but brilliant. Most importantly, none of the shows portray drag queens in a bad light. I like the idea that J Harrison Ghee, who played Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway, was an actual drag queen as well – Crystal Demure. Daniel Jacob, aka Vinegar Strokes, is on our books, and is currently in Jamie as the drag queen Sandra Bollock.”

Mark Inscoe, who will play Bernadette in the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch’s upcoming production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, points out that even in a glitter-drenched show like this there are necessary subtleties at play in staging it successfully.

“It requires an observance of the difference between drag and the fact that Bernadette is a trans woman, with a performance history in the travesty show Les Girls in Sydney,” he says, using the classical term for a character played by a performer of the opposite sex.

“I always keep in mind the iconic April Ashley, who had a similar journey from the travesty cabaret scene in Paris to becoming a sophisticated, proud, glamorous older woman.”

The crossover potential of drag kings and queens into theatrical roles may well be indicative of a change in attitude to drag as a whole. Of course, every Christmas drag queens tweak their nightclub persona for something more family-friendly in pantomime. But if anything, current trends are showing that drag isn’t just for Christmas in mainstream theatre.

The National Theatre’s River Stage festival runs from July 13 to August 12

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