Review: Sound of the Underground at the Royal Court ★★★★
Travis Alabanza’s Sound of the Underground is a breath of fresh air at the Royal Court, a riot of spilled T and a rallying cry for London’s underground club culture.
Writer Travis Alabanza – whose debut piece Burgerz was ‘a brave, impassioned and affecting call to revolution’ (so we said) – makes their Royal Court debut with this co-creation with Debbie Hannan, a similarly rousing play-cum-cabaret showcasing some of the very finest performers to have recently emerged from the underground drag scene.
Along with director and co-creator Debbie Hannan, Alabanza has brought an iconoclastic rebellion to the Royal Court stage: without giving too much away, the first half sees a troupe of performance artists unionising to fight back against the tyranny of a certain high-profile drag personality.
The cast is to die for: CHIYO, Lilly SnatchDragon, Ms Sharon Le Grand, Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird, Rhys Hollis as Rhys’s Pieces, Sue Gives A F*ck, Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot, and Wet Mess are your performers – a line-up which would embarrass any drag/performance stage in London.
Following a well-choreographed yet engagingly chaotic prelude, the more traditionally staged first half sees Alabanza and our cast take aim at the mainstreaming of underground drag culture: first, in the style of kitchen-sink drama, then an impressive, extended spoken-word lip-sync which really sets out the main thrust of Sound of the Underground’s compelling message.
The second half loosens up into a drag cabaret showcase, though each individual performance remains heavily imbued with themes of politics, protest, trauma and rebellion. Though it seems churlish to highlight one or two of these performances, undeniably the loudest audience responses are to Ms Sharon Le Grand’s inspired cover of a 2002 pop ‘classic’, and Midgitte Bardot’s (literally) elevated routine which leaves the front row a little moist. Lilly SnatchDragon and Sadie Singer The Songbird deliver beautiful and playful burlesque routines, Rhys’s Pieces storms the stage with an impressive, energetic dance routine, and Wet Mess brings a welcome surreality to proceedings. Special mention must go to the supreme Sue Gives A F*ck, who doubles as compere and time-traveling history guide – Sue is such a magnetic stage presence, who perhaps seems the most at home on the Royal Court stage.
The emotional climax of the show is left to CHIYO, who interrupts a dance/burlesque performance to interrogate the relationship between audience and performer, and then to angrily denounce the continued threat to trans people and other marginalised groups. It’s a vulnerable and painfully honest exposure of the realities facing so many people in the drag performance community and beyond.
If Sound of the Underground has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t seek to build a bridge between the undeniably underpaid, precarious livelihoods of our supremely talented performers, and the swathes of our society who are similarly up-against-it and under-appreciated. The Royal Court audience (on a non Press Night) is an easy target for them-and-us outrage, but some recognition of the struggles faced by people who are neither drag performers nor Royal Court patrons would perhaps amplify Alabanza and Debbie Hannan’s message.
Sound of the Underground is a powerful, political statement about where the underground drag scene is heading – and a magnificent showcase for a stellar line-up of supreme performance artists!
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like: nice pubs, film marathons, not doing real marathons, bad comedy, plays/musicals with shorter second halves, and the Oxford comma.