Sound of the Underground – Royal Court, London

Reviewer: Andrew Houghton

Writer: Travis Alabanza

Director: Debbie Hannan

London’s queer nightlife taught Travis Alabanza a lot of what they know about theatre. It seems fitting then, that the critically acclaimed writer, alongside some of their biggest inspirations, is now celebrating this underground culture on the prestigious Royal Court stage with Sound of the Underground.

The fourth wall is instantly shattered as the performers enter from all corners of the auditorium – and good riddance, as this is not an evening for theatrical tradition. The performers informally introduce themselves, with varying degrees of entertaining tardiness, before ‘Act 1’ begins.

This first block of the show appears surprisingly conventional: a scripted linear drama playing out upon a naturalistic set design. Sadie Sinner the Songbird hams up her role particularly well, milking each pause to the audience’s delight. Albeit cheesy, this section still proves to be poignant with topical discussions of strikes, unionising and lack of money within the arts. As the scene unfolds and the true mission of the meeting is revealed, however, the narrative devolves into chaotic bliss.

A dramatic tonal shift marks the transition into ‘Act 2’, which consists of lip-synced real-life interviews with the cast about the labour of their jobs. The urgency of the discussion is palpable as the performers note the impact of a certain mainstream television show which is rapidly and unsustainably changing the demands of their profession, alongside diluting what originated as a subversive art form. Wet Mess takes the lead during this section with incredible presence and skill; a welcome shift, following their smaller contribution in the scripted drama.

Post-interval; ‘Act 3’ allows each artist their moment in the spotlight as they take to the stage one by one, emceed by Sue Gives A Fuck. Throughout the entire production Sue demonstrates magnificent charisma, making her an ideal candidate to host this section. She knows exactly how to deliver a punchline and, as Alabanza alludes to in their foreword of the text, is able to command a room with just one look.

The artists, now on their home turf so-to-speak, thrive in this final act; stunning the audience with a variety of cabaret performances which are at the top of their game. Without giving too much away: Ms Sharon Le Grand’s gorgeous vocals can turn any song into a moving ballad, and Midgitte Bardot is… crass fun incarnate.

Oh, and Chiyo sells sex. Very well. That is his ‘thing’ and it is referenced frequently throughout the show; most succinctly when he confidently self proclaims himself as everyone’s ‘sexual preference’. Yet, it is his direct address to the audience that sets the resounding notes of the night. He speaks in a way which is so unfiltered, unpolished and unforgiving – and steals not only the audience’s hearts, but quite possibly the entire show.

This production is, as may be expected, a visual delight. From spectacular outfits, to surprising scene changes, and eclectic lighting and sound, all the stops have been pulled out to make this show as extravagant as the artists that inspired it. Of course, there is always a method to the madness and Alabanza, along with director Debbie Hannan, deserve credit for herding these icons into a more structured theatrical format without losing the experimental, rough-around-the-edges appeal that is currently threatened by the mainstream.

Sound of the Underground is queer, urgent, important, necessary, etc. – all of the adjectives frequently over-used to describe topical, socially-conscious theatre; with one exception: this is the real deal.

Runs until 25 February 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

The Real Deal

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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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