Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show

Jonny Woo's Un-Royal Variety Show
Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show
Hackney Empire, London
October 19th & 20th 2018

by Ruth Morley and Neil Bennett

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show was a lot nearer to the yearly TV staple of the 70s and 80s than you might imagine. It’s an LBGTQI+ event over two nights at the Hackney Empire for the LBGTQI community – but as with the BBC’s performance for Her Madge at the London Palladium, its aim was to please not transgress or make you think. It was a thoroughly-entertaining-if-almost-totally-safe, inclusive night out that left us both with massive smiles on our faces.

The line-up was an extensive mixture of song, dance and comedy. Jonny Woo was the perfect compère – a role that suited him better than as side-kick at his A Night at the Musicals two-handed with Gateaux Chocolat at the Soho Theatre over the summer (Sadly, Gateaux was criminally underused here in only a single comedy sketch and an overly dramatic solo).

There it was Jonny’s singing voice and some of his wig choices that let him down – or perhaps it was just in comparison to the sublime Gateaux – but here he stuck largely to being an entertainer, whether through celebrating the community that had come together for these two nights, or miming to Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn while naked, except for a guitar. However, Jonny’s one big musical number he absolutely nailed, a duet of Barcelona with Jade Daniels that filled the old Empire with joy and is as near to Freddie and Montserrat that you’re going to see in the 21st Century.

Drag act Myra Dubois should have stuck to the songs. Her Christmas-themed revue sprinkled with classic seasonal tunes initially made us feel all festive – but some poor-taste-but-not-in-a-good-way comments about “the Jews” that she really should have rethought after being called out for it on Twitter after the previous night – rather than doubling down. We guess it was an attempt to be transgressive rather than offensive, but it came across as misstep on a par with giving Jim Davidson a segment on At the Apollo.

More actually transgressive were Christine and Lucy McCormick, whose bizarre retelling of the life and death of Tinkerbell from Peter Pan – involving magical objects inserted into various orifices – brought a little bit of edge that stopped the evening feeling too tame.

Running for three-and-a-half hours, the show could have become samey if it wasn’t for the diversity of performance on show. For example, while comedians Gary Starr and Mawaan Rizwan both incorporated dance into their performances, they came from very different traditions. Mawann is a traditional narrative standup – before breaking out his moves for a grime reinterpretation of John Cleese’s Minister for Silly Walks. Gary, looking like a cross between Shakespeare and Bob Ross, is a physical comedian who is also a perfect downtrodden underling to Jonny – a hangdog Baldrick to Woo’s arch Blackadder. A highlight of the show, making appearances sporadic throughout – his best moment was a near naked (except for a ruff) aerobic finale, the cherry on the top of his outrageous slapstick performance. The only time he lost us (literally) was when he walked into the stalls to work with the crowd, out of sight of those of us up in the circles. This happened with a few of the performers – maybe the Hackney Empire isn’t the venue for audience participation.

From the T-shirts, badges and stickers on display, many of the audience had been to the People Vote’s March earlier in the day – and the show played to them beautifully. A choir of middle-aged ladies (and Jonny) dressed as Theresa May singing about the perils of Brexit was perfectly pitched – though it’s hard to go wrong with a song that calls Boris Johnson a ****. The song finished with the unfurling of a large sign saying ‘Fuck Brexit’ – which got the biggest cheer of the night outside of the final encore. Now if only we had had the choir and sign on a mainstream Royal Variety Performance a couple of years ago, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now.


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