How Cabaret Got Serious

This year, cabaret acts are making a song and dance out of big issues, from identity politics to mental health, finds Holly Williams

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Denim: World Tour
Published 03 Jul 2017

“It’s the politics of positivity: the more you hate on us, the more glitter we’ll put out there.” For drag queen Glamrou (aka Amrou Al-Kadhi), resistance can be fabulous.

As part of cabaret group Denim, she thinks it’s their job, in the current climate of fear and prejudice, to make queer identities visible and joyous. “As a Muslim drag queen, I would be on the DUP’s most-wanted list, so my tactic is to take up as much space as possible to show that despite all that is going on, we’re here – and we’re queens. We’re powerful.”

Denim are just one act at the Fringe making a song and dance about a serious issue this year. Cabaret—which after all was originally a subversive, taboo-busting art form—is providing a forum for talking about politics, mental health, feminism and racism. All delivered with a sly grin, a shimmy and a wink, naturally.

“Positivity and joy are actually really political,” says Glamrou. “A lot of people might expect someone like me—a queer Iraqi Muslim—to put on quite a tragic show, but our main thing is always to fight hate with love. Of course we do talk about being ‘other’, and some of those difficult obstacles in our show, but it’s always with a smile. We hope that by the end, even your straight white man will be standing up singing along to a song about fisting, and everyone just feels really happy and a bit more accepting.”

Does she think modern drag has become disengaged from its political roots? “Oh, totally. Drag has become too linked with the fashion world, the club. That’s got a place, but for us drag is theatrical. It’s not that interesting to just say ‘yay, we look like women!’ It’s about consciously reflecting on different kinds of femininity.”

A ‘supergroup’ of five drag queens, their new show, Denim: World Tour, is a pop music extravaganza with oversized ambitions. “You can expect a show that’s really intended for Wembley Arena, but in a Fringe theatre,” deadpans Glamrou. “It’s almost delusional self-belief.”

The happy, silly accessibility of pop music might not sound political, but it can be used to “really smuggle in some hard truths”, she insists. And music’s stealthy ability to tackle hard-to-talk-about topics is key to Jon Brittain’s new show, too. A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) is a cabaret musical about a woman called Sally who has depression, and is written with Matthew Floyd Jones, of musical comedy act Frisky & Mannish.

“If you’re talking about mental illness or disordered thinking, I want to be let into the character’s head,” says Brittain. “Songs can express an emotion and let you have a cathartic moment; what in dialogue it would feel gratuitous can work in song. And the cabaret aspect establishes right at the top that the character is going to be talking [directly] to you – so later on, when she talks about what’s going on in her head, it’s not jarring. It’s a really nice way of just being let inside those thought processes, to feel what Sally’s feeling.”

Brittain is well aware of the way humour can help when discussing big themes. The cabaret form is used to “give people a really good night out, while talking about something that’s really pervasive”, says Brittain, who’s suffered depression himself and has seen a lot of friends go through it. “Yeah, it’s an important issue – but it doesn’t feel like an issue play.”

Consciousness-raising is the name of the game in returning hit show Hot Brown Honey – although it’s more loud and proud than subtle and stealthy. Performed by six women of colour from New Zealand, each has their own stereotype-smashing act.

“We explore Western tropes for women of colour and explode them in a dazzling style,” says Busty Beatz, aka Kim Bowers, the musical director. “We play on preconceptions of genres such as hip-hop, burlesque and cabaret to lure [audiences] in with humour and satire. We then wow with skill and execution, and finally slap with a hard stick soaked with reality – our reality. By placing ourselves centre stage we shine a light on micro-aggressions, privilege, complicit behaviour, social justice, equality, our truths and our lives.”

It’s cabaret’s ability to push the envelope and really confront an audience, while still giving them a damn good night out, that gets her “pumped”. And it seems audiences have been hugely receptive.

“We know that audiences want to see more of their communities reflected on stage,” says Busty Beatz – and that goes for the UK as much as New Zealand. “We are highlighting the lack of diversity on our stages, pages and screens by making a show like this, but we're also celebrating the fact we are creating this space for ourselves and for people like us – game-changers, risk-takers, diaspora, sisters, feminists, queers, punks, poets, provocateurs, thinkers, those of us from the edges.”

Hot Brown Honey was born out of a frustration at the lack of representation of women of colour onstage – and at the clichéd limitations of the parts that did exist. “The roles for black and brown women were such bullshit–tropes and stereotypes – like the maid. Yeah, I said it. The maid. I am not the fucking maid. I’m Busty fucking Beatz. Who we are is so much more.”

Cabaret seemed the perfect medium for not only putting their experiences front and centre, but also for sending up and critiquing those stereotypes and assumptions – using their outsider status to smash the status quo.

Finally, Busty Beatz quotes the radical feminist poet Audre Lords: “‘The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house’. In the case of Hot Brown Honey, we have stolen the keys, turned up the beats and started a riot.”