A first-time reviewer walks into Bethnal Green’s Bistrotheque. Long story short, he doesn’t quite manage to find the punch-line.
It’s the night Jonny Woo is wooing a jolly crowd of 38. He’s wearing an ill-fitting green number. His wig is pink at the tips and yellow on top, with a fluorescent fringe that beams brightly in the dim East London lights. His guitarist, back-up singer and partner in drag-queen crime is Batty Lashes, who’s barely made any effort to seduce, sporting a bleak black combo and a wig that’s more grunge than glam.
This is a Drag Lab experiment. Jonny likes to use the word “fagga-mash-up” to describe the generic concoction of his act. It is unashamedly self-indulgent, skin-deep and purportedly fun. Woo fills the interludes between songs with confessions of “feeling quite mysterious,” musings on inspiration and tales of trips to Berlin and, ahem… London.
“Tell All the People” by The Doors begins the set with an acoustic whimper. Only one audience member confesses to recognising the tune, which speaks volumes about how quickly the great are forgotten. “People are Strange” is next up on Jonny’s playlist, blended with the chorus line “men fucking in the corner” that gets some laughs by the time its sixth or seventh manifestation materialises.
Guests Bourgeois (boy) and Maurice (girl) are introduced with warmth and affection. He’s a young man with short hair, black polka dots on his knees and an outfit that’s tight, feathery and Bowiesque. She looks like an ad girl from the 50s, except for the multicoloured stripes that swing from her black dress. They sing a song about a friend who, in her middle age, is chasing after all the wrong things on an intellectual level. As a result, she’s gotten boring and is now the target of their artistic scorn. Jonny returns to sing a song from Labyrinth with a welcomed lightness of touch and ends on a high with a fast-paced number that sounds like a successful exposition of tongue-twister craftsmanship and includes such memorable lines as “Whacha lookin’at, faggot?” and “Auf Wiedersehen, you dirty queer”.
This kind of performance depends largely upon the audience’s predisposition. If they are willing to play host to silliness and innuendo, the mere image of homosexual fornication where walls make a ninety-degree angle (“men fucking in the corner”) may prove to be the lyrical personification of humorous perfection. Alas, tonight’s crowd of 38 aren’t quite as amused as they’d like to be. Having spotted this, Jonny attempts to address it before the interval. “Has anyone got any questions?” The room falls silent. “This is supposed to be a dialogue,” the performer is quick to remind us: “and it feels a little one-sided at the moment.”
During the break, our first-time reviewer catches the sight of a trendy-looking man high-fiving a cute Italian girl because they share the same zodiac sign. The man turns out to be a hairdresser who spends half his time in Brighton. He says that he comes to these shows to be shocked, “but not too much”. A trip to the men’s lavatory reveals an image that fits perfectly with such undemanding desires.
For the second act, Jonny has changed into a yellow dress to match his hair and Batty Lashes has switched to electric guitar. The first number paints hipsters as nice, the second has “me, you and the Incredible Hulk underground eating the horseshit”, which induces much cringing from our hairdresser friend. Bourgeois and Maurice return to the stage to turn taxation and VAT into double entendres. Their next number, entitled “Don’t Google Me Mother”, narrates a personal history of documented sexual profanity, which the artists hope will remain concealed from their parents despite the digital realities of the information age. Jonny ends his set with “We Could Have Been Anything” from Bugsy Malone, which some audience members sing-along to, and our first-time reviewer is left with the task of writing his piece.
What can one say about something he does not like, but which he knows was never intended for him in the first place? One can describe it, admit it’s not his cup of tea, and cut his losses. Perhaps Jonny Woo was treating Tuesday night’s Bistrotheque as what it was—a rehearsal for Sunday’s Lovebox. On a different night, at a different venue, our editor found him very funny. Perhaps the audience had its role to play, not least our first-time reviewer, sat in the corner, sober, like the grinch of drag.
Jonny Woo’s Drag Lab. Bistrotheque, Bethnal Green, London. Tuesdays, 20:30. £5. www.bistrotheque.com