London Irish Centre Camden Fringe Until 26th August
Review by Nick Holland
The Camden Fringe prides itself on originality and energy. As well as giving exciting new shows an airing, it also revives modern classics such as Pageant, running until 26 August at the London Irish Centre.
Pageant is a fast paced musical where six contestants from across the United States vie for the coveted title of Miss Glamouress – the twist in the tale is that the six women are all played by men, in defiance of the opening number ‘We’re Natural Born Females’. The show has off-Broadway roots, where it ran for over a year in 1991/1992 before being revived in New York in 2014 and gaining a run at London’s Vaudeville Theatre.
That makes Pageant more than a quarter of a century old, and at times it shows. The central conceit of men being accepted as women may have seemed daring at the time, but in an age where RuPaul’s Drag Race is a television staple, the bite of the satire is lost somewhat. That’s not to say, however, that the show doesn’t hit other targets, and the product placements of the fictional Glamouress cosmetic products seems more relevant today than ever.
This latest revival is in very safe hands, as it’s directed by Bill Russell, who also wrote the book and lyrics with Frank Kelly. Bill is something of a musical theatre legend, having received a Tony Award nomination for his 1997 show Side Show. There’s also a star at the head of the cast in the shape of Miles Western. Miles won an Olivier for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his role as Miss West Coast in the original UK production of Pageant, so to have stars of the calibre of Miles Western and Bill Russell (who was at last night’s performance) present says a lot for the show and for the Camden Fringe as a whole.
This time Western has hung up his high heels and stepped into the sparkling jacket of beauty contest compere Frankie Cavillier. At times he seems to be channelling the ghost of Austin powers with his knowing winks and groovy moves, but it is a charming and accomplished performance. His years as a top stage performer allowed him to keep a cool head even when dealing with an over-exuberant heckler: ‘remember, this is their pageant not yours’.
Western was not the only star performer on stage, and the ensemble cast as a whole performed admirably. Each contestant has their own personality and the talent round especially was a riotous triumph featuring grandmother and grandfather ventriloquism, an interpretative dance about birth, death and re-birth, and a poem called ‘I Am The Land’ that has to be heard to be believed. Above all, I have to single out the comic appeal of Alex Anstey as Miss Great Plains and John McManus as Miss Bible Belt who has a superb singing voice: ‘it’s a gift’, as he pronounced to the audience. In fact, this whole revival is a gift.
If you come to see Pageant, and I recommend that you do, then be prepared for night of exuberance and laugh out loud humour. No obvious joke is left unsaid, so when the second act opens with the cast in tin foil space costumes you know a Uranus pun won’t be far away. This, however, is part of its charm and it has it in spadefuls. People were crying with laughter last night, and the ovation at the end was richly deserved.
Pageant may lack the biting relevance it once had, but it certainly doesn’t lack wit, humour or energy!