The Drag – National Theatre, London

Writer: Mae West
Director: Polly Stenham
Reviewer: Tom Finch

It was 90 years ago that Mae West’s The Drag opened in the unsuspecting town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Examining as it does, the details of the New York gay scene it was utterly scandalous for its time and after a few performances, it was shut down. Its author, West, was promptly served a 10-day prison sentence. That she would go on to boast that she wore silk underwear for the duration of her sentence gives a good insight into what sort of woman she was.  Fierce.


The story concerns the daughter of a prominent gay conversion therapist, Clair, who herself is trapped in a loveless marriage with a closeted man, Rolly whose ex-lover has been driven mad with the pain of rejection. Alone for a weekend, Rolly hosts an extravagant drag party st his house with disastrous results.

Watching this rehearsed reading it is sometimes hard to remember this play is 90 years old. The bitchy cat fighting between the drag queens is straight out of an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is likely that this show had something to do with the largely male sold out crowd that attended this one-off performance. Any good Drag Race fan will remember one queen’s impersonation of the late great May West, which reverberated her name and legacy throughout the gay community once more. Her play clearly shows how fiercely she believed that one’s sexuality was no more a choice than one’s eye colour. Something quite remarkable for the age.

Director Polly Stenham assembled a great, diverse and occasionally gender-bending cast. Standouts included Tom Edden as a camper-than-Christmas servant Parsons and Yolanda Kettle as the beleaguered new bride Clair.

One could point out that West does tend to write in circles. An early scene where two (straight) men argue over the nature/nurture debate runs out of steam long before the scene ends. But it does now serve as a fascinating insight into the attitude to homosexuality not so long ago. It’s telling that the closest ally to the gay community is a gay conversion therapist who pities gay men and wants to help them ‘recover’.

What seemed to really strike a chord last night with the audience though was the humour. Even with the actors sat on chairs in their own clothes this was still the calmest thing this reviewer has seen in a while. The two scenes with the drag queens are hilarious. They’re as rude, self-involved and bitchy as you’d expect. There aren’t many plays where an audience seeking missile in the form of a makeup sponge gets one of the biggest laughs of the night.

It’s striking how this play holds a mirror up to the modern world. Still, there are people living in sham marriages and there are still people who believe that homosexuality is a choice or is a disease that can be cured. With any luck, there was a savvy producer at this performance who will snap up the rights to this and produce a lavish revival for the world to see. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in prison for it either.

Reviewed on 10 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

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