Review of play: Sound of the Underground by Travis Alabanza

Travis has yet to best Burgers.

The blurby bit

“Ladies, Gentlemen, and then all the legends that have realised gender is a trap – introducing the Sound of The Underground.” 

Out to the electric night, where the bassline jumps in the backstreet light. The true sound of the underground is tearing duct tape, frenzied costume fixes, lighting up cigarettes, jangling tips and a whole lot of chaos. This is not your average night at the theatre.

Legends of the London queer club scene come above ground to take over the Royal Court Theatre. Part-play, part-raucous cabaret, part-workers’ manifesto, join eight underground drag icons as they spill the tea, free the nipple and fight the shadowy forces that threaten their livelihoods. Bring some change. Tip generously.

Travis Alabanza’s first play for the Royal Court spotlights London’s iconic underground club culture and questions what it means to get your money’s worth when it comes to art.

Written by Travis Alabanza, co-created and directed by Debbie Hannan.

Blurb from the Royal Court’s website for the play

Too long

We learnt going into the theatre that the performance was two and a half hours long. Sorry, that’s just too long for what was amateur cabaret at best, but I’ll admit I only made it to the interval this time. It may be that the second half was amazing. We’ll just never know.

Predictably Sound of the Underground has gotten very positive reviews*, and, perhaps more predictably, we’ve been very mean to Travis again.

*Well, sort of. She flags many of the problems I have but still decided to give it 5 stars.

Deranged screaming

From the audience. Which started about two seconds into the performance. Imagine that. Reasonable composure to shrieking wildly in a space of a second, in response to? – Badly dressed people.

The performers

The most well known performer, to us at least, was Chiyo (you know, the woman who was a Mr Gay England finalist a few years ago). The rest were a variety of female and male drag acts, the only one I was aware of previously is Wet Mess (female, IDs as NB), and, of note, woman of restricted growth who performs as Midgitte Bardot, which – you have to admit – is a pretty good moniker.

A performing midget – absolutely groundbreaking!

It starts

After three minutes of the audience vocalising their unadulterated gender euphoria, we found out the compere for the evening was basically going to do Mother Goose but minus any amusing double entendre. Then Chiyo came on stage, channeling Bonnie Langford doing Principal Boy and, when she could remember, a most impressive Mockney accent. She informed us that we were ‘roots’ and had the ability to grow from ‘DIRT!‘ (think Danny Dyer). And a jibe about ‘white cisgendered men’ who pretend to be gay. (Her inner chimp doing somersaults, I bet.)

In turn, the other performers introduced themselves. Basically they wanted us to know that they were here to fuck with our minds, except the only people in the room were ‘the community’. And me. Hmm.

Sue Gives a Fuck stiffly informed us of the mixed metaphor of ‘roots being allowed to grow and to blossom’ and ‘our history and the challenges which face our community’.

Then Midgitte Bardot came into the space looking for a lighter. It went on far too long and by the time she finally got on stage I had lost interest in whatever the joke was supposed to be. But Travis’s sticky ketchupped fingers was all over it, sarcastic tone doing the heavy lifting in place of humour.

Scene II

Even though the acting was wooden, the audience roared with laughter at the dull dialogue, including a line about one of the characters bumping into a train driver in a dark room to discuss the current industrial action, an extended ‘joke’ about being locked in a basement lip syncing for a straight man who was holding a birthday party for his child’s 18th, ‘queer time’ which meant you could always be late, and then finally to the nub of the matter: Kill RuPaul, the person who has ruined drag the mostest, a plot line directly lifted from Zoolander and therefore an allusion better avoided. Never mind that most of them wouldn’t be doing drag if it weren’t for RuPaul. And to think the extended metaphor for the show was roots.

The reason why they wanted to kill RuPaul is because they can’t get paid enough to pay their gas bills, or, in the case of ‘having a vagina’, booked at all. On announcing this snatched plot line the audience went wild, yet again. I must admit, I cracked up laughing. As if they don’t all watch Drag Race religiously. The main complaint was that drag was becoming ‘sanctioned and sanitised’, i.e. the cool cats didn’t want to be associated with anything popular. Erm, too late. They especially didn’t want to do adverts. Don’t do them then!

After Chiyo did another Bonnie-Langford-doing-Principal-Boy, corralling us all to take action, thunderous music started and the ensemble engaged in what one could loosely describe as dancing, if you were feeling generous. Despite being plagued with worry about my old lady cat being sick, I managed quite a healthy wheeze for the full five minutes.

Plea for money

Apparently the arts don’t pay well. Indeed one of the content warnings for the show was: ‘Discussion of pay disparity and financial hardship’. Snort. Especially given the ticket prices.

Not only were they down on their luck, but the theatre and arts were generally struggling too, so they were going to come into aisles with buckets for our cold hard cash or QR codes that we could scan if we were purely digital. And so they did, with much screaming and derangement from the excitable crowd. When they got near us one of them shouted: ‘Don’t worry if you missed it, there’s a chance to give at the end’. ‘We won’t!’ we shouted back, grinning and waving. You’ve got to get into the spirit of these things.

Change of scenery

Extended period of no dialogue while the performers and the director changed the set. Despite the scene change being done with zero slapstick and with no associated meaning to the play thus far, there was still sporadic hysterical laughter from the audience. The lesbian couple sat next to me, who I’ll wager were trans-identified, tried joining in by tittering good-naturedly every now and then. ‘Why are they laughing?’ one finally ventured. ‘I don’t know,’ said the other, lightly. Later, when something utterly pathetic was said on stage and I tsked irritably, I felt their doe eyes on me.

Community voices

The last part of the first half, after the completion of the non-funny, non-dramatic and non-meaningful scenery change, was them lip syncing to testimony from themselves. Surely, it would have been more powerful to have heard these testimonies straight from the horse’s mouth? Anyway, the main complaint was not getting paid enough for gigs. And then they turned on Drag Race itself, which was ‘limited and exclusionary’, although a few admitted they would do it because it would improve bookings. One admitted that everything she had learnt about drag had been through Drag Race. Doh!

Drag Race was wrong because reality TV was wrong (perfectly matched in my opinion). Drag can change the world and is a positive thing but RuPaul! Well, RuPaul can FARK OFF! No, actually. LET’S KILL HIM! Cos he’s ruined EVERYTHING making drag all popular and stuff. Especially since RuPaul won’t allow ‘people with vaginas’ or men who do woman-face full time to perform on any of his Drag Race shows. FRACKING BASTARD!

Then we were told how much they’d earned for appearing in Mx Alabanza’s play (bit of a weird detail) – £600 – which worked out about £75 per show. I think that’s not too bad, given they weren’t really being asked to act. They seemed happy with it at least, or pretended to be. Perhaps the one piece of serious acting.

The whole scene lasted over quarter of an hour with the same points being made over and over again. Undramatic and tedious.

The interval finally arrives

When the interval finally came, I spied a number of people, who, like me, made a beeline for the exit in a way that suggested they weren’t returning. But I didn’t return, so who knows? It was a sprawling mess with too many similar characters, a likely predictable denouement and performances which were so amateurish. Travis has yet to best Burgers.

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One comment

  1. Sweet Lord and Saviour, what a night out … And Good for you – the tsk-ing encounter with the captured lesbians, I mean. I come from the working-class midlands where tutting has its uses, oh yes … Am not a performing arts person, having walked out at the interval in some interminable thespianism 30 years ago. ‘Theatre’ (funny how quite a few actors omit the def article) is such a drag.

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