Sound of the Underground review – magnificent explosion of mesmerising drag

Royal Court, London
A plot to kill RuPaul for dragging drag into the mainstream, followed by song and dance numbers, fires up an exhilarating show with breathtaking costumes, radical politics and filthy humour

It takes some time for Travis Alabanza’s show about the underground drag scene to set alight. But once it does, somewhere in the later part of the first act – after the awkward early scenes – it is a magnificent explosion of burlesque, feather boas, radical politics, pain, anger, filthy humour and breathtaking drag.

Co-created and directed by Debbie Hannan, the fire lies in the song and dance numbers, thunderous in their power, that come in the second act. But before that there are discussions on the state of the art today. Issues such as low pay and unionisation are flagged up, a little woodenly, but the show begins to bare its heart as the set is dismantled to reveal the naked walls of the theatre beyond.

Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot in Sound of the Underground at Royal Court theatre, London.
Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot in Sound of the Underground at Royal Court theatre, London. Photograph: Helen Murray

With this, performers begin lip-syncing to voiceovers of their own words or each other’s and it feels like a supportive act – the emotional burden of their words shared – but contains its own masquerade. The effect is mesmerising and moving. They reflect on victimisation, precarious wages and the love of their art. Many in the underground scene wind up homeless, says one voice. There is diversity among the eight performers with a drag king and cis queen among them, and they make clear that this mainstream theatre space is not their natural habitat – they are invited, somewhat equivocal, guests.

What leads much of their narrative is an only half-jokey plot to kill RuPaul. He might be an icon, they say, but dragging drag into the mainstream has led to vapid commercialisation, and a sanitised version of the form, shorn of its politics and radical interrogations. We as consumers can simply enjoy its playful aesthetics without deeper engagement. This message hits home in the final act when drag king Chiyo stops their adrenalised performance to speak of how their body is admired by (often straight) audiences inside a club but becomes the source of trans danger and derision outside it.

Each act in the second half is as exquisite and exhilarating as the next, showing us that drag is as much about dream, fantasy and dress-up as escape, liberation and self-expression through masquerade. There is a stunning strip-tease with fans by Lilly SnatchDragon, burlesque infused with messages on decolonisation by Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner the Songbird, a song filled with operatic grandeur by Ms Sharon Le Grand and a charismatic act by Wet Mess combining Tudor dress with luminous trainers and sinister clown face. Sound (Alexandra Faye Braithwaite) and lighting (Simisola Majekodunmi) too come with a drama which might befit the Moulin Rouge, and there is breathtaking creativity in every costume.

Sue Gives A Fuck, acting as compere, speaks of the sadness and joy in drag. There is certainly sadness in this show, sudden and gut-wrenching but the joy of performance too, and it is a sheer joy to watch.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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