Review: Pageant, London Irish Centre

Drag has always been prominent within the performing arts. In recent years, with drag culture becoming more and more celebrated and mainstream, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag Idol, numerous shows about and featuring drag queens are opening up in the UK. From the announcement of Craig Revel-Horwood as Miss Hannigan and the opening of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie later this year it’s clear that 2017 is the perfect time for a revival of Pageant directed by the show’s co-writer, Bill Russell. Originally performed Off-Broadway in 1991, the show transferred to Vaudeville Theatre in 2001 where Miles Western was awarded the Olivier for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Miss West Coast. Pageant hilariously explores the world of American beauty pageants complete with all the stereotypes of the industry, however all the contestants in the Miss Glamouresse 2017 competition are played by men in drag – in fact the only woman anywhere near the stage is Musical Director Katy Richardson. 

Miles Western returns to the 2017 revival to play Frankie Cavillier, the host of Miss Glamouresse and our MC for the evening. After a brief introduction by Western we are introduced to the girls in ‘Natural Born Females’ the show’s opening number which sets the tone of the evening as the audience struggle not to laugh. Of course the contest would not be complete without celebrity judges who (surprise, surprise) are seated within the audience. Normally many would shudder at the thought of audience participation but Bill Russell (co-writer of the Tony nominated musical Sideshow) and Frank Kelly cleverly construct this section of the musical so that all the members of the audience have to do is stand-up asFrankie Cavillier introduces them.  

Pageant is ultimately a show about the contestants and due to the nature of the format, every girl (and therefore actor) has the same amount of time on stage and a variety of opportunities to impress. We are treated to a number of rounds in which we get to learn more about each of the contestants. These include a swimwear, eveningwear, physical fitness, beauty crisis hotline and spokeswoman round. Of course no beauty Pageant would be complete without a talent round. It’s here that the most memorable moments of the show take place such as Miss Bible Belt’s rendition of ‘Bankin on Jesus’ which manages to both stun and amuse the audience due to John McManus’ powerful vocals. Miss Deep South (Adam O’Shea) also impresses with what can only be described as a puppet song about her grandparents. Other treats include a cowgirl tap dancing routine by Miss Texas (Jonni Gatenby), an interpretive dance called The 7 Ages of Me by Miss West Coast (Kevin Grogan) and a rather deliciously uncomfortable roller-blading musical delight by Miss Industrial Northeast (Nic Chiappetta).   

What makes Pageant so enjoyable to watch is the dynamic of the contestants. Although each girl is stereotypically portrayed (it’s no surprise that Miss Bible Belt sings a song called ‘Bankin on Jesus’ or Miss West Coast doesn’t seem to understand the dance routines), each has a personality. Perhaps the standout performer is Alex Anstey who as Miss Great Plains awkwardly bumbles through the competition seeming not to understand how she ended up there. 

Perhaps part of the charm of the show is the venue. The London Irish Centre in Camden is reminiscent of a village hall with individual chairs stacked in rows and the wings/dressing area separated from the audience by just a small screen. Oddly this space works for Pageant as it makes it feel as if what you are watching is real, that we really could be the audience of a low budget beauty Pageant rather than a musical. It would be interesting to see how this would change if Pageant transfers to a larger, more central venue which hopefully it will do.

Pageant is playing London Irish Centre until August 26.

Photo: Tim Austin