Drag’s a life: Panti makes it to the National Theatre

Ireland’s foremost drag queen takes her biographical show to the big stage

Panti: coaxed away from rambunctious, adoring bars to an audience that doesn’t need to be whipped into order

Panti: coaxed away from rambunctious, adoring bars to an audience that doesn’t need to be whipped into order

 

All Dolled Up Restitched
Peacock Theatre, Dublin


After one of many gloriously tasteless remarks delivered during Panti’s autobiographical show comes that weightless moment between shock and laughter. “Yes, we’re in the National Theatre,” says Panti, a blonde so shapely even a Barbie doll would complain about unattainable ideals, “but I am still a drag queen.”

It’s a real concern in THISISPOPBABY’s new production, and director Phillip McMahon recognises that both she and the theatre will have to demonstrate some transformation. The theatre does a fair job, pushing its showtime into the looser end of the evening, providing themed cocktails, and decorating the foyer in kitsch. For her part, Panti becomes tighter, perhaps too tight, coaxed away from rambunctious, adoring bars to an audience that doesn’t need to be whipped into order.

“When an actor steps off the stage, he’s just a waiter,” says Panti, “but a drag queen is never off the stage.” Here, then, is a performance about a life spent in performance, but it gives little glimpse behind the scenes.

Assembled from three previous productions, In These Shoes, All Dolled Up and A Woman in Progress, this version gets through a biography of material in a hurry, wrapping Panti’s background and life in exquisitely tart-tongued comedy.

It begins with a different perspective on Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979 from a bored and glamour-deprived young Mayo boy and leads through formative encounters with the performance artist Leigh Bowery, the liberating discovery of Tokyo’s hyperkinetic drag scene in the 1990s, and back to Dublin to ignite a gay scene.

There’s a certain sentimentality for underground clubs and provocative performance pieces (her legendary impersonation of a karaoke machine is hard to describe) but there’s little acknowledgement of how armour-plated Panti’s persona is, from its irreverence (neither her idol, Dolly Parton, nor living with HIV are off-limits) to what feels like rote-delivery.

A masterful lip-synced performance of a defiant Broadway torch song supplies a real crescendo, but the show comes most alive when Panti strays from the script, improvises an acid one-liner or casually appraises the stage – “tiny”. The show is tailor-made for her, but it is more electrically revealing whenever the stitching comes loose. Until July 20