Robert Reid is charmed by The Rest is Drag at the Butterfly Club, a melodrama for our times
This is a soap opera at heart. With emphasis on “heart”.
The Rest is Drag is a love story between a drag queen and a drag king. The downstairs stage at the Butterfly Club feels like it should be the ancestral home of this work: its riotous, rough-around-the-edges charm suits the venue well. Cramped onto the small stage space, a love quadrangle unfolds backstage at a drag club – La Mirage – with all the knuckle-biting melodrama and shocked gasps of day time television.
Like all good soap opera, the plot is a minefield of relationship entanglements, but rather than multiple partners causing the complications, it’s the multiplicity of gendered experiences in which the characters are tangled. Michael (Jack Beeby aka Six Inches Uncut) and Claire (Anna Burley aka Ira Luxuria) are drag queen Dora the Explorable and drag king Aiden Abett. Friends for a long time, best friends really, Michael is non binary, while Claire identifies as queer. They’re both already in relationships when they realise their attraction to each other and fall desperately in love.
This complicates things for Claire but rather simplifies them for Michael. Claire, whose relationship with club manager Davinia (Jess Cook) was non-monogamous, drifts away from her partner to spend more and more time with Michael, until eventually Davinia leaves her. Michael, on the other hand, has been feeling trapped by their marriage with Steven (Daniel Kim).
Outside the confusion caused by the always-emerging nature of our selves, the real emotional core of the drama is that Claire couldn’t bring herself to be honest with Davinia about her growing feelings for Michael. To cut Claire some slack, she’s also trying to come to terms with the new aspects of herself that she’s discovering. In moments of personal redefinition, it’s sometimes hard enough to be honest with yourself, much less your loved ones.
It feels like there’s trouble down the track for Michael and Steven, too. Steven might be feeling liberated by sleeping around while Michael is exploring their feelings for Claire, but I wonder how long that can last before Steven starts feeling the same way Davinia did.
The upbeat song and dance numbers that intersperse the action are full of energy but the melodies avoid catchy hooks, which makes it harder to come away whistling. They provide excellent opportunity for Beeby to claim the stage: their energy as Dora is as charming as it is overbearing. The torch songs are full of pathos and Jess Cook particularly brings hers to tragic life.
The language is extraordinarily careful and specific throughout. Deliberate, particularly in regard to pronouns and queer theory, at times the dialogue drifts toward sounding like a text book. But at the same time it reminds us of the power of words to shape and confound us in the expression of our selves. How we describe ourselves and what names we take can be powerfully constructive of who we are. Identity is performative. All these things are shaped by words and so, although to be careless is a commonality of the moment, in this heightened place (on stage and in their personal narratives) it makes sense to be as careful as possible with what words you use.
I will say it feels a little truncated: 50 minutes doesn’t feel like enough to tell this story fully. The relationship between Michael and Claire is rushed along by jump cuts. What is lovely about The Rest is Drag is that, even though the whole thing is fraught with drama and desire, it feels relaxed. Even though it tells the story of people struggling to become who they are, the dramaturgy of it never makes them victims of it.
The writing doesn’t judge them for their choices and their experiences. These people are simply who they are. It causes them problems, not as a function of the play or even of its politics (which are of course inescapable anyway), but because working out who you are is difficult for everyone, and is an ongoing process.
It’s not the most developed version of this show, but it shows tremendous promise. As do Darwent and Gray.
The Rest is Drag, by Darwent & Gray. Music, Lyrics and musical direction Nicholas Gray, written and directed by Caleb Darwent. Performed by Jack Beeby, Anna Burley, Jess Cook and Daniel Kim. As part of Melbourne Fringe at The Butterfly Club. Until September 16. Bookings