Panti Bliss: If These Wigs Could Talk – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer/Performer: Panti Bliss

After a life of recklessness, what is a 54-year-old drag queen for? That is the question Irish drag queen and activist Panti Bliss has been asking herself, and which forms the premise for her latest stand-up show.

The evening kicks off with some wry observations about the way drag has changed over the decades. Rory O’Neill’s Panti was born in the age of illicit basement bars, where drag was something they fell into until, years later, the realisation came that that was now their career. These days, the success of Drag Race has meant that drag is seen as a viable career choice, albeit a commoditised one. In that world, is there room any more for the old guard?

Initially, it seems as if Panti’s answer to this is going to be that she can still relate anecdotes from a life of recklessness. The time she visited Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a guest of the producers, only to realise that the bag check – carried out in full view of the family audiences – would reveal the rather large sex toy she had brought to London. Or the occasion when, after being invited to Vienna as a guest of the Irish Ambassador and making a big deal of being able to bring her Brazilian boyfriend, she had to find a last-minute replacement when they had a row, and turned to Grindr to find a substitute.

That last story is the funniest, sweetest of the evening – what could be the storyline of a hilarious gay romantic comedy, made all the sweeter because of its truth. And it leads tangentially into the wider theme of the evening, that being the winds of progress when it comes to queer acceptance.

For when Panti was growing up in Ireland, homosexuality was illegal. In the 1970s and 1980s, many gay Irish men left their home country for fear of persecution. Queer life was, Panti notes, the sort of illegal behaviour for which the sentence was imposed before the crime; the self-imposition of exile, or even death, was a goal of the draconian laws.

But in the decades since, massive social change has come about in Ireland and elsewhere, with anti-gay laws struck off the statute books and marriage equality marking a sea change in social attitudes. That enables Panti to talk to a young lesbian in Sarajevo – Bosnia being where Ireland was in Panti’s youth – and instil a sense of optimism.

But such progress is not constant, nor can it be taken for granted. Long renowned for her LGBTQ+ activism, Panti switches from comedic reminiscence to spittle-flecked anger as she talks about attempts to roll back people’s rights. Her activism is fiercely trans-inclusive (one cannot imagine she would attempt to see Harry Potter these days) and this aspect fires up her invective.

But it is the recent attacks on drag in the UK, Ireland and America, that form a more focused element of Panti’s monologue. Anti-LGBTQ movements want queer people to hide in the shadows, which is something that drag performers, with spotlights shining on sequinned gowns, can never be.

The activist talks of how, after acting as Grand Marshall in the first ever Pride march in her native County Mayo, she and many others stood up to protestors who were picketing a bookshop that was hosting a Drag Queen Story Hour event. Panti’s quick tongue and ear for a humorous soundbite meant that the confrontation quickly went viral, and lent support to all those who wish to counter-protest the anti-gay movement.

And that, then, is the answer to the question Panti started by posing. The transitions between comedic anecdote and impassioned anger in If These Wigs Could Talk may not be the smoothest, but the connections are never lost. The progress that enabled Panti and her fake boyfriend to be guests of the Irish establishment is forever at risk. The older members of our LGBTQ+ community can speak to advances, but they can also warn of the dangers of regression.

Panti notes that Martin Luther King, Jr once said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. This blend of hilarious comedy and righteous rage reminds us that the universe does not bend on its own; it can also fold back on itself. It requires us all to hold it up, to bend it into the arc of justice of which King spoke. As we do so, Panti Bliss will have our backs. And the fire that she instils in her audience suggests that there will be others joining her.

Continues until 10 June 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Hilarious and angry

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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