With so many shows at the VAULT Festival devoted to LGBTQ+ issues, The Reviews Hub’s Richard Maguire thought he’d see what the third week of the festival had to offer. He chatted to three creatives who are bringing some queer-slanted shows to the VAULT this week: Drag King, Len Blanco; director and writer Conor Hunt; and award-winning comedian Heidi Regan.
Len Blanco, drag king and former boyband member, plays the VAULT Festival this week, and again at the end of the month. They promise a comeback show packed full of live singing, lip-synching and dancing. And remember, it’s live and so anything could – and possibly will – go wrong! Seeing the likes of Westlife and The Backstreet Boys reforming, and the perennial popularity of Take That, Len wants to give stardom another go. Surely, they have nothing to lose?
Len’s Twitter feed suggests that Wembley Stadium is their next venue after VAULT, but, perhaps unnecessarily (or ironically), Len points out: “Please note this is a parody”. Len is the alter ego of performer Helen White, and the show, Firing Blancs, was a great success at Edinburgh last year. Even if some of Len’s history is fictional, they have, in real life, appeared on prime time TV, competing in the BBC’s All Together Now last year. Although they didn’t make it to the final of this singing competition, it was heartening to see a drag king on Saturday night telly.
Drag kings were quite a phenomenon in the mid-nineties, but then, until recently, they almost disappeared from the cabaret scene. Len believes that the resurgence of drag kings is due to the crumbling patriarchy in today’s society. Drag queens have been successful because underneath the glitter and the frocks, they are men. But with the current exploration of masculinity, drag kings have a lot to tell us about how gender is constructed and performed. Drag kings also took over the VAULT on Saturday night as part of the Lates programmes when club nights are paired with theatre. Let’s hope that drag kings are here to stay now.
If drag kings are challenging perceived ideas of LGBTQ+ nightlife, then Conor Hunt’s new play Kings of Idle Land also upturns stereotypes. Set in Oldham in 2001 when race relations between white and Pakistani communities simmered over into riots, Conor’s play follows the story of two boys from either side of the divide, who, despite their different upbringings, fall in love. However, in a surprising and refreshing twist, it is Pakistani Hammad who is confidently out as a gay man, and Michael, the white boy, who is having problems accepting that he might be gay.
Conor is not quite old enough to remember the Oldham riots, but his play has come out of extensive research and discussions with interfaith groups. An excerpt of Kings of Idle Land played at Outstageus in Manchester, a night showcasing new LGBTQ+ writing from the area, and after the VAULT Festival, Conor hopes to take the play home to Oldham. He is determined that regional stories are heard in British theatre, which is sometimes overrun by stories of London and America.
While Kings of Idle Land features two queer men, Conor doesn’t want his play to be viewed as a show for the gay community only. He believes his play talks to anyone who feels like an outsider. And this sense of alienation is seen in the Oldham park, where the play takes place. The park is located between the white and Pakistani neighbourhoods, forming a kind of no man’s land, or in Conor’s words, an idle land. As Hammad and Michael are only 17, they too occupy another kind of no man’s land, not quite men and yet not still boys.
Kings of Idle Land is billed as a comedy-drama, but if you’re after more straightforward laughs then perhaps you should check out the new show by Heidi Regan, who won the BBC New Comedy Award in 2017. It’s a work in progress, gearing up for Edinburgh, and it has no title on the VAULT website, but Heidi revealed to The Reviews Hub that it’s called Heidi Stops Time. In her show, she will discuss ideas around time, and time travel, but in a surreal way. She’ll talk about the apocalypse and the doomsday clock in a silly way ensuring, she’s keen to point out, that her style is “accessibly surreal”.
Heidi has just finished a tour supporting Joe Lycett and while she enjoyed the big arenas in which they performed, she is looking forward to returning to smaller, intimate spaces like the Travelling Through Bookshop – her venue at the VAULT Festival. It will be her first time performing at VAULT, but her friends and fellow comedians have told her that the audiences here are the best, and the atmosphere is great.
As well as an LGBTQ+ audience, Heidi also attracts a ‘Radio 4 audience’ since she won her award, and, indeed, has been working for the radio station in recent months. She recorded a segment for Radio 4’s New Year’s Eve show, and a new half-hour show will be broadcast this year. She wasn’t nervous about doing radio until someone told her just before she performed that the show would be broadcast on the World Service, thus reaching an audience of several million!
While the VAULT Festival can’t guarantee audiences of millions for any of these acts, it can promise discerning audiences eager to discover new and exciting work. These audiences are what the festival thrives on, and Week Three, with these three acts, already looks like a knockout.
Len Blanco: Firing Blancs runs to 1 March 2019 | Kings of Idle Land runs to 10 February 2019 | Heidi Regan: Work in Progress runs to 7 February 2019
The VAULT Festival continues to 17 March 2019 and details of everything that’s on can be found at VaultFestival.com
Richard Maguire | Images: Contributed