Writer: Brad Loekle
Director: Spencer Noll
A camp and sassy romp through the life and career of drag superstar Alyssa Edwards that gives more to die-hard fans than casual admirers.
Drag is here. The subversive, gender-bending art form has made it from the backstreets and late-night clubs to the main stage of London’s West End. Whist drag has been around for longer than the term ‘drag’, its transformation from underground, gay-subculture to prime time TV, has been on the heels of the phenomenal success of RuPaul, undoubtedly the world’s most popular and celebrated drag queen of all time.
If RuPaul is drag’s Matriarch, then Alyssa is surely its precocious mother-in-waiting: by her own words, she is the Mother Goose of drag. For the uninitiated, Alyssa Edwards is the alter ego of Justin Johnson, of Mesquite, Texas, a dance obsessed man who owns and operates a successful local dance academy. Alyssa, on the other hand, is a big-haired, long-legged, sassy-mouthed pageant queen, listed by New York magazine as America’s fifth most powerful drag queen.
In Alyssa, Memoirs of a Queen! we are presented with a selected romp through Justin’s life from childhood to today, interspersed with some lip-synched dance routines. The show’s stories are curated into two clear life-sections; pre-interval is childhood to discovering drag and post-interval is, pretty much, dedicated to her time on RuPaul’s drag race.
The stories in the first act are focussed on the more sexual elements of Justin’s life: discovering sex, dressing up as a woman, coming out as gay to his grandmother, going to his first Pride event etc. The second act is more of a gossip session on his time on RuPaul’s Drag Race, so be warned if you’ve never watched the show.
The stories are engaging, if a bit rambling, and told with a good smattering of expletives. He often ventures off-piste, as a scripted story reminds him of something else that he crowbars into the show. As he declares, early in the performance, “F*** the script, I am the script!’. By his own admission he’s a talker and so the stage has been fitted with a prop to keep everything on track: a glittered telephone that rings every time he wanders too far from the script or scheduled timing.
These semi-scripted tales are interspersed with a few lip-synched dance routines, where Alyssa is joined with four male dancers. As a dance instructor, she has the moves, but the routines lack the energy, exuberance, and theatrics that Alyssa is known for. She slides into the splits once and there’s no sign of a death-drop anywhere. Compare that to a short video montage that opens the show, where Alyssa is high-kicking and death-dropping like there’s no tomorrow, and the dance performances seems flat and perfunctory by comparison.
Whilst the stories are littered with humour and some with emotional impact, you only get the slightest glimpse as to who Justin is or why he created Alyssa. They’re told in a very conversational manner, so there’s never the feeling that any of this is scripted, but in achieving this, there’s a huge knowledge assumption on behalf of the performer to his audience. If you’re not a fan of Alyssa or a fan of RuPaul’s drag race, much of the show could leave you confused.
All this said, there’s a definite appeal to Alyssa that cannot be denied. Her Texan drawl and southern charm warms us like a cosy blanket. Her attitude and sassiness oozes from every pore. Her gaze tells you exactly what she’s thinking. And, her one-liners should be given place of honour in the next book on great quotations: “do you know anything about drag? No! But I have four sisters and I pray” or “you’re sweating so much you look like a whore in church”.
However, anyone hoping a deeper understanding of the performer, or why someone looks to drag as a form of expression, will find no answers here. Ultimately, this show is a nicely designed cappuccino foam without the coffee.
*please note that the performer uses both the He and She pronouns when referring to themselves in the show.
Runs until 13 June 2021