Velma Celli, Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, 29/5/2021; Velma Celli’s Impossible Drag Brunch, Impossible Wonderbar, Impossible, York, 5/6/2021
IT takes balls to be a drag act.
Velma Celli knows it, shows it and indeed sometimes them too in a leg-crossing, leg-uncrossing, let’s-sit-and-chat-on-the-stage-lip moment at York Theatre Royal.
In York drag diva deluxe Velma’s case, it takes more than balls, however. Pointedly, the fabulous, fruity, funny creation of musical actor Ian Stroughair bills herself as “the queen of vocal drag”.
“I can sing,” says Velma, throwing a ta-da shoulder shrug as she calls out the parade of kitch’n’synch acts that strut and pout on RuPaul’s Drag Race conveyor belt.
Velma, or rather Ian, first sang on his home-city Theatre Royal stage in a musical version of Kes – that sounds camp! – at the age of 14. Twenty-four years later, coinciding with theatre’s return from a long Covid quarantine, Ian/Velma is back on this stage at last, and not before time, bitches, as Velma is wont to address the throng.
“Can I just say, it must be such a privilege for you to be here tonight,” says Velma, who has wrapped a clingy, plunging little black number over his very tall, leggy frame. Although this night is not all glamour: off come the false eyelashes when they start playing up in the stinging heat.
The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago in the West End. Wednesday was meet-up night for the boys from Chicago, Priscilla etc at Madame Jojo’s, the legendary Soho home of burlesque and cabaret, dressing up glam to sing.
Ian went as Chicago’s nightclub star and murderess Velma Kelly, slurped on his vermacilli dish, and took to the stage. Velma Celli was born, or rather, “unleashed”, as Ian puts it.
This is but one story from A Brief History Of Drag, a show that Ian put together when stuck in Tanzania and has since taken to Australia and the USA, as he celebrates “burlesque, debauchery, defiance and…shoes”. Velma duly points to a silvery pair that glisten even more than Dorothy’s heel-clickers in The Wizard Of Oz.
“Unleashed” is exactly the right word for a Velma Celli performance: a tornado, a toreador in vocal form, here stirred to ever greater heights by super-talented musical director Ben Papworth, high-heeled boots tucked beneath his keyboards.
This is a proper, proper show: Velma, up front and out there; three-piece band (Papworth, keys, Clark Howard, drums and gold lamé jacket; Al Morrison, guitar); two backing singers, Kimberley Ensor and rising York talent Grace Lancaster; two guests, soul queen Jessica Steel, York partner in lockdown streamed concerts, and musical actor Jordan Fox, partner in pantomime for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.
When Velma takes the stand beneath a rockabilly quiff, she can not only sing the sing and dance the dance, she can talk the talk too, witty and waspish, as we learn of drag’s history, Velma and Ian’s past, her staging posts, the abiding influence of unloving mothers and the importance of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York in 1969 and the Stonewall LGBT charity over here.
For the Theatre Royal’s Love Season, love is in the air and in the one-off prefix to the show title: Love Is Love. Omnipresent is the love of song and those who take risks: for example, Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Show’s Sweet Transvestite); Freddie Mercury and David Bowie – the latter, Velma’s astute choice for her next show – for a spectacular Under Pressure and La Cage Aux Folles’ Albin for the climactic I Am What I Am.
Mind you, Velma can be picky, not liking Culture Club’s hits, but loving Boy George’s musical, Taboo, and its signature number, Stranger In This World. Gorgeous, Georgeous.
Velma loves a duet too, taking a seat side by side with Jess for a stand-out Always Remember Us This Way (from Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born), accompanied on guitar by Stuart Allan. Later, in the latest update to the show in a nod to the impact of Russell T Davies’s devastating series It’s A Sin, Velma is joined by Fox for the Pet Shop Boys’ anthem, poignant yet celebratory too.
Velma’s voice warms, expands, stretches and strengthens as the show progresses, shown off to the max in a set-piece send up of lip-synching acts on RuPaul’s Drag Race, mimicking their physical impersonations while accentuating the vocal tics and mannerisms of Britney, Bjork, Bassey, Gabrielle, Cher et al.
Ending with an encore medley from Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Velma/Ian will surely not have to wait for another 24 years to return to the Theatre Royal.
In the meantime, Velma is bedding in a new monthly residency for The Velma Celli Show in the big-windowed first-floor Wonderbar at Impossible, York, and last Saturday afternoon Velma Celli’s Drag Brunch was launched there too. Covid-safe; socially distanced; no masks needed when seated, but yes if you want to stand to dance around.
Judging by the support for the two sittings at 12.30pm and 2.30pm, it is likely to become a monthly fixture too as part of Impossible’s cabaret and comedy portfolio.
The show is fast-moving, fizzy and fun, with “bottomless cocktails, small plates and a side order” (Halloumi Bites and Truffle Chips for CH) and two sets by Velma, introduced by DJ Zoe on afternoon release from Funny Girls in Blackpool, armed with a potty mouth, party-igniting disco classics and the backing tracks for Velma’s vocal tour de force.
It may not surprise you to learn that, looking around, the debut Drag Brunch partygoers are predominantly female, but the smattering of men are having a fab time too (but need to be willing to be the butt of DJ Zoe’s bawdy humour).
The Wonderbar, with its profusion of plants, wood and glass, recalls the conservatories and cocktail bars of the 1930s and makes for a fabulous cabaret setting. The cocktails list embraces the classics and the up to date (Salted Caramel Espresso), the Mojito and the No-jito (for the mocktail option).
General manager Stephanie Powell’s staff are everywhere, busy, busy, busy with their table service of drinks and choice of Chicken Skewers/Halloumi Bites/Cauliflower Wings/Hotdog (mini-version) with Skinny Salted Fries/Truffle Chips/Salad.
Gliding down the stairs, Velma is in sparkly black and silver, topped off in the second set with a shimmering silvery bob wig, and as she promises: “When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you”. From Feeling Good to the obligatory Divas-meets-Drag Acts setpiece, I Want To Break Free to “torches out” for Bowie’s Starman and a ruder lyric for Queen’s Somebody To Love, Velma walks the room as she works the crowd. Everything is drag, nothing drags.
Girls, and boys, make sure to be in Velma’s camp for your Saturday afternoon pleasure.