In the Beginning
Reviewed – 10th February 2020
“The foam padding around his hips and his flaming red wig are presented as just as authentic as the mud and green of the countryside”
‘Performing the words of Alex Marlow, please welcome to the stage… Alex Marlow’. Written on Subterranean Homesick Blues style placards, the opening of In The Beginning aptly opens a show that perfectly embodies the new wave of self aware, contextualised drag performance.
London is currently home to an exciting and innovative culture of burlesque that challenges and pushes the limit of what is traditionally seen as drag. From the rise of Drag Kings in collectives like The Pecs to The London Short Film Festival opening with a night of alternative drag, showcasing cabaret that centres around neurodivergence and race, this is an exciting place to be. With this show, writer and performer Alex Marlow and director Deirdre McLaughlin offer a highly personal and sensitive contribution to this, ultimately pulling at the corners of cabaret itself and seeing where its limits are.
The show jumps around between genres, from mainstays of drag like the lip synch, the clanging double entendre and the intense eye contact with the audience, to more serious formats such as poetry, personal memoir and long moments of introspective silence. What complicates this is that they are not sealed off from each other but intertwined and overlapping. There are intense poetic monologues delivered in full drag and lip synched numbers in jogging bottoms. All the while, Marlow is narrating small vingettes of his life now and his life growing up queer in rural Lancashire, tackling huge topics with personal specificity and grace. This erratic combining does not make for a confusing piece, however, but for one that is touching and funny, requiring the audience to second guess their assumptions about gender, performance and power at every new combination.
The success of this relies heavily on Marlow as the single performer. Luckily, he is an excellent one. His physical performance is by far his strong point as he throws his body round an almost empty stage, flipping from catwalk to skulking to modern dance. He also has incredible comic timing, as is showcased in a short, strangely emotional skit about anal sex and guava which he performs whilst happily snacking on the fruit which he has pulled out of his bra.
Although sparsely populated, the staging and props of this piece create one of its strongest features. Marlow flips between wearing a wig and not, and whilst he isn’t, it sits on an elevated wig stand, watching over the proceedings like a judge. Drag is about layers, traditionally the adding of them. Make-up, padding and prosthetics take the natural and make them unnatural. Marlow complicates this by constantly playing with these layers and shifting around in them. Clothes are taken on and off in quick succession, a full face of makeup disintegrates but shiny earrings remain. There are also long poetry sequences about nature and the pastoral, surely the most ‘real’ thing which most drag avoids dealing with for precisely that reason. Marlow runs into it, however, relishing in the smell of crushed nettles and smearing mud over his impeccably done face.
The smartest move he makes is that none of these layers are prioritised. The foam padding around his hips and his flaming red wig are presented as just as authentic as the mud and green of the countryside. Drag can be gritty reality as much as it can be escape from it. Although perhaps some of the writing could be neater and the transitions between sketches smoother, this is a dazzling piece of cabaret that shows that there is no truth under drag but rather, like turtles, its drag all the way down.
Reviewed by Cleo Henry
Photography by Holly Revell
In the Beginning
Katzpace until 12th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: