Star rating: Cuncrete ****
Venue: Summerhall (Venue 26)
Royal Vauxhall ****
Underbelly Med Quad (Venue 302)
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)
Gender Spanner ****
Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18)
“We’re all self-made men here,” says Cuncrete’s Archibald Tactful, brutalist architect, frontman of punk band the Great White Males and “self-made man” in more ways than one. Not only is Tactful a cocksure evangelist for the gospel of neoliberal entrepreneurialism; he’s also the fictitious creation of Rachael Clerke, who embodies him with the aid of a slick business suit, a drawn-on moustache and an ornamental concrete phallus.
Cuncrete is one of a number of drag-king shows at this year’s Fringe. A drag king, as the name suggests, is the counterpart to a drag queen – a woman dressed as a man (though in some cases it’s not quite that simple) – and the mode is enjoying a surge of popularity on the UK cabaret scene, with a string of Fringe shows reflecting some of the different ways to be king.
In Cuncrete, male clothing is a vehicle for satire. The show takes the form of a gig by the Great White Males, who are all suited kings: property baron-cum-drummer Little Keith (Anna Smith); banker-cum-guitarist johnsmith (Eleanor Fogg); Bullingdon Club Tory-cum-bassist Johnnie Jove (Josephine Joy); and singer Tactful (Clerke).
Tactful’s lyrics and patter conjure an upwardly-mobile world of balls-out male privilege and entitlement, all churning cement machines and jutting high-rise blocks, complacent urban planning and ruthless acquisition. They’ve even gentrified punk. But if the general tone is scathing, there’s also a sense of the effort required to perform masculinity: the business suit as costume; the precarity of the pecking order; the need to own the right “nice things in leather cases. Binoculars.”
In Royal Vauxhall, male clothing functions like a mask – it’s a lie that tells the truth. This terrific new comedy musical by Desmond O’Connor dramatises the real-life story of the night in 1988 when Princess Diana disguised herself as a man to visit the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, the iconic London gay pub, with her pals Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett.
Directed by Lucy Wray, it’s a raucous and pacy three-hander with catchy, expressive songs, fun audience interaction and great turns from Tom Giles as Mercury, Matthew Jones (Frisky and Mannish) as Everett and Sarah-Louise Young (Cabaret Whore) as Diana. Each character is charismatic but traumatised, high-flying but insecure. Through drag, Diana escapes oppressive expectations, sees herself anew and emerges stronger after discarding the drag. “Sometimes,” she notes, “the only way to be yourself is to pretend to be someone you’re not.”
In JOAN, male clothing is a vehicle of satire, then a path to glory, then an expression of the essential self. In this powerful, dynamic and irreverent account of the life of Joan of Arc, written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck, the only performer is Lucy Jane Parkinson, who, as LoUis CYfer, is one of the cabaret scene’s foremost drag kings. But Parkinson embodies many characters and identities, sometimes at the same time.
We first meet Joan as an alienated adolescent who dresses as Monsieur d’Arc to lovingly mock his disapproval of his unusual child’s tomboy qualities. Then, following divine instructions to lead an army against the English, Joan mans up by learning the mechanics of masculinity, from walking butch to delivering a weaponised spectacle of leadership through gleaming armour and the right kind of horse. Later still, the masculine mode proves impossible to forsake. It has become Joan’s true identity – or perhaps always was.
In Gender Spanner, male clothing is an emblem of self-determination. In this thoughtful and resourceful solo queer cabaret, Australian performer Jessica McKerlie uses personal experience to explore the nuances of gender and sexuality. Engaging clearly and sympathetically with the audience, McKerlie playfully deploys songs, stories, burlesque and circus skills to convey the fluidity of identity and the intersections of a range of political concerns.
The show opens with a comic burlesque in which dresses are strait-jackets and male clothing a comfortable relief. There’s the memory of being given detention for daring to wear shorts to school on a hot day. And a mixed-up strip routine finds humour and defiance in the way the gender identity we feel, and express through clothing, might not tally with the body we have. There’s a thrill to the realisation that anyone can be a self-made man – in fact, a self-made person of any gender or none at all.
Cuncrete until 26 August; today 10pm. Gender Spanner until 27 August; today 11:35pm. JOAN until 28 August; today 7:20pm. Royal Vauxhall until 29 August; today 10:10pm.