The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok (Edinburgh Festival)
Their Big Top tent is located on the waste ground between plush apartments and offices – a no-man's land of genderfuck exotica. You walk along Fountainbridge road to see the gathering throng of taxis and the groups of all ages, their glad-rags on. The people are on their Friday night out; one out of the ordinary. Freeing myself from the study room and the library and a general perfunctory routine, I entered through the gates and joined them.
What is it about The Lady Boys of Bangkok that leads to sell-out crowds? Sexy and brash, I guess this is tabloid journalism made flesh, to the rhythms of Abba and Lady Gaga. It's sensationalist, sometimes tawdry, and filled with striking, sauntering, confident women, fabulously dressed in one costume change after another, who in turn are aided and abetted by their Chippendale male accomplices. Combining disco vibe with catwalk and pop music cheesiness, the show ticks so many boxes there's probably something for everyone out looking for a Friday night adventure.
The show comprises of alternating acts, of generally modern US/Euro pop with stunning show girls miming and dancing, and a tackier series of routines, involving an aging drag queen and a dwarf; in the latter case, the scenes end with the theme to Benny Hill, which probably tells you all you need to know about the tone. With the exception of their Mary Poppins routine, with the drag Mary Poppins miming to A Spoon Full of Sugar while snorting (fake) cocaine, this latter type of act failed to hit the mark for me, a kind of cabaret that might have been funny in the 1970s at a Bernard Manning comedy venue.
But the acts with the girls – like a really good fast food meal on an empty stomach – all hit the mark. Are they girls? In one big reveal, you get to see that some have benefitted from breast implants, while the femininity of their beauty makes me suspect a cosmetic surgeon got involved somewhere. Isn't such curiosity part of the show, though? So many of their routines leave you in both admiration and a 'how did they do it?', and I think it wasn't just me asking these questions, from overhearing girls nearby marvelling at the svelte femininity on display.
My favourite routines were the medleys of Lady Gaga and Abba – I had forgotten how much I love Lady Gaga, and how perfectly her artpop for drag shows like this is suited. Dancing Queen, also, is one of the all-time great anthems, making you high with disco. But elsewhere, what I remember is the zero-tolerance security. For be aware if you attend this show, it's tightly policed. This starts at the entrance, when you discover you can't bring in liquids (I had to dispense with a bottle of water I'd just bought), and their airport security doesn't get much friendlier inside. One woman, getting on a chair amid the melee, was immediately aided back to earth, while a man who jumped on stage was quickly frogmarched out of the show. Political conventions don't have security this tight, I mused. It's a weird tightrope, the atmosphere encouraged one of disco fervour, but one step too far, and the response can seem uncompromising, and in one instance nearby me, way out of line.Overall, though? I'm glad I went, even with the cost (£20 for the cheapest ticket, £4.30 for a beer). The fact it's a feature of the Edinburgh Festival adds to the charm. Walking home along Lothian Road I suddenly came across a late-night orchestral spectacular, with 3D projections merging and moving upon the walls of Usher Hall. The road might as well have been closed for the crowd that made it impossible to pass. But isn't this what the Edinburgh Festival is all about? A trashy, sensational drag show followed by a walk home past classical music beamed from an opera house, to the awe of a late night, 11pm crowd. Welcome, Planet Earth, to the Edinburgh Festival.