BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 19 JAN 23

Travis Alabanza and Debbie Hannan Invite the Club to the Stage

The rising playwright and director discuss Sound of the Underground – a collaboration between eight drag performers – opening at London’s Royal Court Theatre

BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 19 JAN 23

For the last five years, Travis Alabanza’s star has been rising on the fringes of British theatre. Their previous plays, Burgerz (2017) and Overflow (2020) – staged in warehouses, studios and off-West End theatres – brought trans lives to the stage with disarming frankness. When the 27-year-old playwright and performance artist landed a slot on the main stage at London’s historic Royal Court Theatre – their biggest gig to date – they were faced with a choice. ‘I could either write this really serious play about the same issues,’ they tell me when we speak. ‘Or, I could have more fun.’

Travis Alabanza
Ms Sharon Le Grand, CHIYO, Rhys Hollis as Rhys’s Pieces, Sue Gives A F*ck, Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird, Tammy Reynolds as Midgitte Bardot, Lilly SnatchDragon and Wet Mess. Courtesy: Travis Alabanza, Mia Maxwell and the Royal Court, London; photograph: Faith Aylward

With director Debbie Hannan, Alabanza has created Sound of the Underground, surely one of the most fun works to be staged at the Royal Court in its history. From nightlife venues, including VFD and Dalston Superstore, they have gathered eight stalwarts of London’s drag scene to collaborate on what Alabanza calls ‘part play, part raucous cabaret, part workers’ manifesto’. Among its performers are Lilly SnatchDragon, co-founder of the pan-Asian drag collective The Bitten Peach; an ‘alien baby’ named Wet Mess; cabaret star Sadie Sinner the Songbird; drag king CHIYO; and Ms Sharon Le Grand, whose Cyndi Lauper impression – complete with neon yellow wig, layered tulle skirt and zebra-striped over-the-knee boots – is legendary.

Alabanza and Hannan conceived the play as an homage to London’s queer clubs. By drawing on their experience as nightclub performers, the pair are exploding theatrical tradition at the Royal Court, which has staged surprisingly little queer theatre to date. Though several scenes have been scripted by Alabanza, the lion’s share of the evening is devoted to the acts of the performers, which range from grime-inspired rap by Rhys’s Pieces to piss-drinking performance art by Midgitte Bardot and culminate in an epic history of drag clubs narrated by Sue Gives a Fuck. 

Travis Alabanza
Travis Alabanza, 2022. Photograph: Niall McDiarmid

Drag performers are admired for their glam, filth and unapologetic gender-fuck – to which Alabanza adds their often-overlooked work ethic. In rehearsals, performers discussed the depressing corporatization of drag, the challenges of being working class in an industry full of the socially advantaged, and the irony of being invited to perform in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs. Alabanza fed these conversations into the play, producing a lively and accurate analysis of what it means to be a queer artist today – one that is specific to the play’s trans majority cast, but relatable to any queer person questioning why and for whom they are making art in our current time of crisis. ‘State of the nation plays are usually about boring white families in the kitchen. We have that too,’ Hannan says. ‘But this is the state of the nation witnessed through its clubs.’

‘I’m a reluctant theatre-maker,’ Alabanza tells me. ‘Theatre calibrates what counts as high and low art by not showing its workings – just a finished performance that magically appears. When you do that, you disappear into the work. It’s disempowering.’ As a countermeasure, the set includes an on-stage green room, where the performers smoke and shit-talk as they put on their faces. ‘Showing the workings’ in this way is more than an aesthetic decision: it’s also a call to action. ‘Seeing how much work it takes for drag artists to get ready might make theatres reconsider how much they pay them to host the show’s after-party,’ Alabanza advises. ‘And not offer them £50!’

Travis Alabanza
Mwice Kavindele as Sadie Sinner The Songbird, 2022. Courtesy: Travis Alabanza, Mia Maxwell and the Royal Court, London; photograph: Faith Aylward

Alabanza belongs to an emerging wave of queer British playwrights – including Tabby Lamb, Jordan Tannahill and Temi Wilkey – bringing stories from the queer community to increasingly large-scale and historically heterosexual venues. While the visibility of these writers is cause for celebration, Alabanza urges vigilance: ‘People think if it’s queer in content, that’s enough.’ Rather than simply represent the queer community, Alabanza and Hannan have sought to collaborate with them at every stage of the process. They have also resisted the pressure for ‘queer joy’, a trend in theatre for stories of queer self-acceptance, of which the pair are rightly suspicious. ‘The request for joy often comes from the non-queer,’ explains Hannan. ‘What it means is: can you end this moment of pain we’re having to tolerate?’

Armed with smoke bombs and dildos, puppets and a life-size ‘punk glitter tank’, these performers work hard to ensure no shortage of joy. But Alabanza is committed to showing the cost – both financial and emotional – on the community of underpaid queer artists who daily have to contend with nightlife decimated by the pandemic, transphobia and a cost-of-living crisis. By bringing these performers above ground, they also hope queer nightlife will find new audiences. ‘You want the people watching to say: “Oh my god, I don’t want to lose that.”’ Among Alabanza’s other aspirations for their play are two modest, but no less subversive, aims: ‘I hope the cast get some private donors out of it,’ they laugh. ‘And I hope I make cross-dressers out of the husbands!’

Sound of the Underground is at the Royal Court Theatre, London, UK, until 25 February.

Main image: Wet Mess, 2022. Courtesy: Travis Alabanza, Mia Maxwell and the Royal Court, London; photograph: Faith Aylward

Alastair Curtis is a playwright based in London, UK.