The Gender-Bending Art Form Taking London by Storm

Photo Source: Francesca Forristal and Ed Scrivens performing as Christian Adore and Eaton Messe

This is Notes From the Edge, a series reporting from the sharp edge of the UK’s creative industries. This week, we discover what’s stirring in the world of Drag Kings, why they are owning this festive season and why it matters.

Forget queueing up to see Santa or watching endless school nativity plays featuring your neighbour’s kid as Donkey No. 3 or Stable Door No. 2. This year it’s all about Drag King Christmas shows that promise you an extra slice of naughtiness.

What even is a ‘drag king’?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you’ll have heard about RuPaul and drag queens. Drag queens have long been popular in mainstream media and their language has well and truly entered the cultural lexicon: werk, girl; yass, queen; and shady all come directly from drag queen language.

But drag kings are now starting to enter the cultural mainstream. Kings are (mostly) female performers who present physicalities and thoughts often stereotypically associated with men. But drag kings don’t just impersonate a gender – they drive a vital art form that uses comedy, music, dance or mime to tell stories and entertain. And drag king shows aren’t just limited to “actual” drag kings – more artists are using drag king techniques as a medium to explore characters.

Who’s doing it?
Daisy Hale, co-producer at Pecs Drag Kings told us: “In the last couple of years there’s been such an influx of new drag kings, and the urge to learn more about drag and be involved in drag is highly in-demand. We’ve run workshops for the last year or so – and every time they are completely oversubscribed. I think drag king nights like Boi Box, Kings of Colour Initiative and the Glory’s annual MAN UP competition have really paved the way for drag king representation, and now I think we are getting much more used to seeing a mixed bill of drag and queer artists on a cabaret line up, rather than it being exclusive to one form.”

Francesca Forristal is one half of the Dragprov Revue, a drag double-act created with her partner in crime Ed Scrivens as drag king Christian Adore and drag queen Eaton Messe. Forristal name-checks the best drag king shows in London: The Velvet Curtain Club at the London Improv Theatre; Meth’s Apples and Pears cabaret; Felix and Friends; the Glory – always has incredible shows, but I advise Boi Box; check out Soho Theatre – they always have some drag; and also keep an eye out in the Peckham area cos there’s loads going on there. Always.”

A look at the big picture.
Forristal told us: “Saying ‘I like drag’ is as vague as saying ‘I like theatre’. You can’t just say ‘I like drag’ because if you were to watch me do a set of improvised musical comedy and rap – which is what I do – as [my alter-ego] Christian Adore…and then you were to watch Chiyo Gyomes do a deeply personal, heart-wrenchingly political lipsync, then watch Oedipussy’s hilarious and surreal lipsync inspired by Leda and the Swan, then listened to Sue Gives a Fuck doing a podcast, then watched Nate from Soho Theatre, you’d have seen politics, comedy, art, confessional writing, character sketch, lipsync, burlesque – so much.”

Where does Christmas fit in?
Drag king Christmas shows are very much a thing. As Hale says about Pecs’ next show: “The question is, what ISN’T Christmassy about our show XXXmas! We’re taking all your favourite Christmas classics and putting our special queer twist on them. Expect all the cheesy tunes, a very different nativity – and Santa will be visiting! After the show, we’re turning the room into a queer party grotto till the early hours.”

Another one of the hottest nights of Christmas will be performed at east London’s drag kingdom The Glory, where the KOC Collective will be performing We’re dreaming of a KOC Christmas on 12 December – their first ever Christmas show.

Why does it matter?
Drag is yet another medium where performers who were given female gender assignments at birth can be overlooked, whether they still identify as women or not.

For Forristal, drag is a medium she uses to better examine stereotypes. “Christian Adore is my drag character. He embodies a form of – at times, toxic – masculinity which is cripplingly affected by gender stereotypes. Yet this is not a toxic masculinity that manifests itself in booze, babes and banter. Christian’s own personal brand of insecurity and entitlement is instead the product of a society in which boys are rarely given sufficient role models or narratives by which to live.”

Hale says: “Our shows are empowering, they’re silly, they’re sexy, they’re liberating. We use drag to create a safe and easy access point for people to engage with socially engaged topics and political topics. The act of drag itself is a powerful political weapon by flaunting gender norms, challenging the binary and saying fuck you to the patriarchy. Equally, you’re going to be well and truly entertained.” And, she adds: “We just want to provide a safe space for a queer ol’ Christmas.”

Get involved.
The Glory has an annual MAN UP competition – open to all, and many of the established players – like Pecs’ Daisy Hale – run drag king workshops.

Forristal describes a recent performance, Bling it On at Above the Arts: “They weren’t established kings; it’s becoming – I hope – a legitimate theatrical medium the same as any other, and is slowly being stripped of its historically fringe and slightly underground associations. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as people are experimenting and creating a diverse array of messages and performance styles with the medium.”

This means for actors, there are plenty of ways to explore the medium and get up on stage.

Check out Backstage’s UK audition listings!