Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says. “I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Now, Ian is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter. “I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” he says.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

Copyright of The Press, York

Move over drag diva Velma Celli, here’s Ian Stroughair’s York panto villain Flesh Creep

Welcome to the dark side: York musical actor, singer and dancer Ian Stroughair casts off his drag diva act, Velma Celli, to play Flesh Creep in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk this winter

YORK has seen plenty of Ian Stroughair this year, online largely, from his Bishopthorpe kitchen in his cabaret guise as drag diva divine Velma Celli.

From December 11, the West End musical actor, singer and dancer can be enjoyed in his home city like never before, making his York pantomime bow in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk at the Covid-secure, socially distanced Theatre @41 Monkgate.

Given his glamorous, glorious-voiced alter ego as Velma, you may have expected Ian to slip into the dame’s costumes, but “perhaps I’m a little young for dame,” he says.

Instead, 6ft 5 in his boots and stove pipe top hat, Ian will be switching to the dark side, entering stage left as Flesh Creep in writer-director Nik Briggs’s 90-minute production on a traverse stage.

“Yeah, finally I’m doing a panto in York,” he says, wiping away the face paint from his photo-call session. “Before the pandemic lockdown changed everything, I was supposed to be auditioning for the York Theatre Royal pantomime [Cinderella, pre-lockdown], but that didn’t happen.

Smokin’! The poster for Large & Lit In Lockdown, one of Velma Celli’s kitchen-sing dramas streamed from
Ian Stroughair’s Bishopthorpe kitchen

“Just like I was going to be doing Funny Girls for three months, taking over from Betty Legs Diamond, so I should have been going up to Blackpool for that, but then all the theatres shut suddenly. So instead I got on the train and came home to York.”

In globe-strutting Velma Celli mode, Ian had been performing in Australia before the escalating Coronavirus pandemic sent him packing back to Blighty, quarantining in York from a week before lockdown.

He refused to be downtrodden, instead writing and cycling to keep show-fit and embracing the nascent possibilities of steaming concerts live and sparkly from the improvised Case De Velma Celli kitchen stage.

“It was tricky at first because we were trying to navigate the technology to make it look and sound good, so it was a big learning curve, but so many friends were just sitting at home moaning, and I thought, ‘no, there are still ways to be artistic and you just have to think outside the box and work harder than everyone else,” recalls Ian, who began with an April 29 fundraiser by Velma for St Leonard’s Hospice, York.

Later, for his kitchen-sing dramas, he presented Velma in Large & Lit In Lockdown and virtual versions of the cabaret queen’s hit shows Equinox, Me & My Divas and A Night At The Musicals.

Minus the make-up: York actor and international drag queen Ian Stroughair

Usually to be found once a month gracing The Basement stage at City Screen, York, Velma returned to live performance in York by signing up for a rugby club – York RI Rugby Union Football Club, in New Lane, Acomb, to be precise – for An Evening Of Song outdoors under the September stars.

Velma playing to playing a rugby club crowd in York on a Friday night…that’s brave, Ian? “Someone suggested there and I went down and met the lovely Caroline Knight and I was sold. Lovely people there and I grew up in Acomb, so it just felt right,” he says.

“The crowd turned out to be mainly people who come to my shows at City Screen, but we did have a LGBTQ rugby team in!”

Rehearsals for Jack And The Beanstalk began at Theatre @41 on November 23, reuniting Ian with West End choreographer Gary Lloyd, who has headed north to York, where his sister, Jo Theaker, is a leading light with York Stage.

“Gary directed and choreographed me in a show called What A Feeling! for a UK tour and the London Palladium,” Ian recalls. “I was 23, so it was nearly 15 years ago. It’s still the hardest-working show I’ve ever done because Gary’s choreography is always spectacular, so it’s great to be working with him again. He’s one of the very best.”

Ian has previous form in pantomime, playing Dandini in 2015/16 in Cinderella at the Regent Theatre, Stoke.  “I loved every minute. We were fortunate to win a couple of Great British Pantomine Awards,” he says.

Ian Stroughair in Velma Celli mode

“I was nominated too, for Best Actor, which was lovely. Julian Clary beat me. It was me, Julian and Samuel Holmes, who were nominated; they’re both panto veterans, Julian with his £20,000 worth of costumes at the Palladium…and then me in my panto debut!”

Now comes the sinister sidestep to playing the baddie Flesh Creep in Jack And The Beanstalk. “I’ve never done baddie before, so I’m going to take out Velma’s ‘potty’ mouth and replace it with some sinisterly articulated elocution,” says Ian, elongating his words.

Having lost his mother a few years ago, Ian says Christmas “can be a difficult time”, but “if you can’t laugh at a pantomime you must be dead inside”. “So, I can’t wait to be spreading the joy this Christmas. I’m loving it, after the only things that got me through this year were fried food and wine!”

Looking to the day when he may yet emulate his “idol and a living legend”, York’s long-running dame Berwick Kaler, Ian says: ”Panto producers do keep trying to get me to play Ugly Sister, and  should I ever play dame, it’s a role where it’s all in the rhythm and instinctive comedy timing. That’s something you can’t teach but you can get better at it.

“It’s an exhausting role and should be the heart of every great panto. I prefer the dame to not be too polished aesthetically; a tad rough around the edges ideally.”

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from December 11 to January 3; show times, Monday to Saturday, 2pm and 7pm; Sundays, 1pm and 6pm; Christmas Eve, 12 noon and 5pm; New Year’s Eve, 12 noon. Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only.