Writer and Director: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
It’s not often that you get to see an Oscar winner on the London stage, especially one whose film has shifted the boundaries. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s film Moonlight eventually won the Best Picture award this year, as well a writing gong, but back in 2008 he was an aspiring playwright whose story about rival drag queens transferred from New York to the Royal Court, and has been given a one night only airing as part of the National Theatre’s Queer Theatre Festival.
On the eve of the annual Pride March and on the grand Lyttleton stage in the shadow of the epic Angels in America set, a rehearsed reading of Wig Out is performed with the verve and excitement of a full production. It may establish the possibility of a Romeo and Juliet scenario as two rival drag ‘Houses’ compete for supremacy at the annual Cinderella Ball, but this is no love story.
Under the watchful eye of ‘Father’ Lucien, the House of Light [snap fingers] has emerged from dark days to become a bustling and proud establishment, full of excitable performers. There’s Nina who is falling for Eric but he is struggling to accept the drag world; Venus and Deity have broken up over sex and commitment issues, and House ‘Mother’ Rey Rey is starting to fade. When rivals, the House of Diabolique announce the date of the ball, the family have only 24 hours to overcome their issues and put on a show.
Introduced by Artistic Director Rufus Norris in a wig, the decision to stage a series of reduced price rehearsed readings is a canny one, drawing in a diverse audience while testing out potential additions to a future season. If anything deserved a full run soon, then this production of Wig Out! certainly does, and even with a semi-circle of chairs, some high heels and, of course, a few wigs it’s possible to visualise how impressive this could look – it’s a little hard to follow at first without these visual aids but it settles quickly.
McCraney’s writing is so beautiful that it stands alone, smooth and warm at times, gently creating empathy for all his characters, while at others he expresses the loneliness of being different. The House is a surrogate family for all the artists whose difficult childhoods are delivered in occasional monologues that sit so neatly against the fun of the drag show, and this is McCraney’s skill, developing this lovely rhythm that takes the story credibly from exuberant highs to intimate and painful personal moments in a heartbeat.
They may be script-in-hand, but the performances are as vivid and meaningful as if they were in a full run. McCraney himself plays Rey Rey, the senior drag artist forced to confront her own decline which becomes genuinely pitiable, while the doomed romance between Tunji Kasim’s worldly Eric and Kadiff Kirwan’s Miss Nina unfolds first with laughter then with tears. Great work too from singers Alexia Khadime, Cat Simmons and Abiona Omonua who belt out the lyrics from Dreamgirls and Maybelline adverts with a cheeky wink, while Ukweli Roach’s predatory and menacing Lucien adds plenty of darkness.
There are so many universal themes that emerge while watching Wig Out from love and family to the distinction between fantasy and reality, definitions of masculinity, identity, race and the influence of the past, all of which are wrapped in some pretty dirty humour that has the audience roaring with laughter. And it is amazing to see the usually staid and respectful Lyttleton crowd whooping and cheering like they’re at a rock concert. Rufus Norris may not want to hang up that wig just yet, a full run of Wig Out! is surely soon to follow.
Reviewed on 7 July 2017 | Image: James Bellorini