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600x600.fitdownIn the UK, drag is very much part of the comedy landscape.  Cross-dressing for the public’s entertainment has happened since the year dot and, with programmes such as RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming increasingly popular, it is reaching ever wider audiences.  In relatively recent years, drag has become intrinsically linked with LGBTQ culture, developing into a form of expression for many people in this community, in or out of drag.

It’s possible to track the rise of drag in popular culture through Shakespeare, pantomime, variety, nightclubs, radio and eventually prime time television. But Panti: High Heels in Low Places makes one thing clear: it was all leading to this point.

Panti Bliss’ new one-woman show doesn’t explicitly make this point. Even considering the stories that Panti has to tell and the claims of being a “national f***ing treasure”, there is actually very little arrogance or ego in the show’s 90 minute running time.  However, without realising it the production does put Panti centre stage as the zenith in drag performance.

Bliss is presented as an activist, a fierce comedian and an eloquent storyteller.  Crucially, Bliss is almost beyond drag; she seems designed not purely for entertainment, but to challenge social norms and rattle cages.  Early in the show she comments that drag is about being able to say what others are too scared to and then spends the rest of the performance proving it.

Panti (AKA Rory O’Neill) came to international prominence after being asked to name some well-known homophobes on national television in Ireland.  As a consequence, he was sued by high profile organisations and individuals but, at the same time, galvanised discussion on gay rights and marriage in a largely Catholic country.  The show, obviously, comes off the back of that episode. But it becomes clear, during the show, that Panti was trying to discombobulate popular perceptions many years before “Pantigate”.  A story about attending a local funeral with Madonna shows how she challenged people in her neighbourhood; footage of her and a friend pretending to be brother and sister on America’s Maury Povich Show demonstrates how she was taking on international audiences before she even realised it.

Panti’s audience laps up these stories and the almost constant rounds of applause are testament to her skills as a raconteur.  There are moments when the performance seems less spontaneous: a couple of set pieces are delivered with a lack of commitment that belies the passion that the stories are driven by.  However, a wonderfully fraught and aggrieved routine about sports broadcasting being replaced by programmes about crochet really hits the spot.  As does her only real interaction with the audience in which she categorises the room by sexuality and then by how the couples in the audience met.  It’s an interesting social experiment and Panti mines comic gold by turning clichés on their heads and stretching popular ideas to their most ridiculous extremes.

Panti: High Heels in Low Places very much feels like a special event.  It’s part performance art, lecture and stand-up comedy, and it’s impossible not to come away with food for thought.  It’s dangerous to use the phrase ‘ground-breaking’, but that could well be what’s happening at the Soho Theatre as long as Panti Bliss is there.

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Reviewed 14/10/2015

by Robert Pearce

12th – 17th October 2015
Soho Theatre, London, W1D 3NE.

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