The politically charged drag and cabaret troupe push boundaries and inspire their audience in the golden age of drag
We're spoiled for choice when it comes to cabaret this year. While a plethora of beautiful, bolshie acts descend upon Edinburgh every Fringe, 2018 is particularly saturated with great shows. Yummy stands out; a kaleidoscope of talent, with a cast including drag queens, dance artists, burlesque acts and circus performers in an exciting, politically charged exploration of queerness and gender.
'We pay tribute to the hallmarks of drag,' says James Welsby, aka Valerie Hex, drag queen supreme. 'But we're also pushing forward. Our show is as charming as it is outrageous, and as fun as it is sophisticated.'
Welsby is one of three members of Yummy who have a degree in dance from the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. The troupe's love of contemporary dance is evident, and they take their knowledge and run with it to ensure their interpretation of the art form always reaches new places.
When Welsby began Yummy in 2015, four male-identifying people and four female-identifying people made up the cast: his aim was to create gender equality in a drag show. 'We don't need any special recognition. It just seemed like the right thing to do,' he says. 'We never boxed ourselves in too much.'
Karen from Finance is one of this original cast, and has seen her career explode in the last few years, allowing her to become a global drag superstar. When she started out, however, it was the alt.cabaret scene that seduced her.
Karen from Finance 'Something the alternative drag scene lacked in Melbourne, when we got together, was any form of production values or sisterhood, in terms of working together,' she says. 'There was nothing with the alternative scene that was pushing the boundaries. So being involved with Yummy was really exciting: a drag production that wasn't part of the mainstream.'
It has been in her favour – and Yummy's, and the myriad performers who are taking on the genre – that drag is becoming more and more globally mainstream with each passing year. Welcoming drag into the cabaret scene just makes sense, with both art forms based around storytelling, song and dance, to various extents.
'It's very near to cabaret,' Karen agrees. 'But I'm interested in the way different drag queens are getting involved and how they're using the cabaret format to tell their own stories.'
These stories can be anything, from good old-fashioned entertainment to something more right-on. Yummy falls on the latter side of the spectrum. As Welsby explains, audiences are far more inclined to listen if you can dress up what you're saying in a socially aware way that's also fun.
'We try to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,' he says. 'The way we deliver our politics is particularly seductive and joyous, and the real question is gender: how can we go beyond gender? How can we use performance to conceal and reveal gender? How can we display that gender should never limit our possibilities for artistic expression?'
Audiences know what they want from cabaret these days, and a discourse and dialogue with the performer is important. One of the things Karen gets most pleasure from is seeing people, post-show, chatting about what they've seen and getting not only joy, but a feeling of inspiration and aspiration from it.
'I think what a lot of people take away from drag shows is a sense of free will and a sense of self,' she says. 'I feel like people are inspired to express their own self more after seeing our show; they feel a lot better about letting their guard down and being a little bit more open-minded.'
The hope is, of course, that the success of shows like RuPaul's Drag Race won't result in the current love for drag becoming a flash in the pan. Welsby believes we're living in a 'golden age of drag' right now, but will still be around long after the initial popularity fades.
'I'm kind of committed for life,' he laughs. 'Within Yummy, it's an identity. Audiences don't always know what they're going to see, but they always know that they're going to like it. We, certainly, are not trying to ride any wave, we're trying to steer our own ship.'
Assembly Roxy, until 26 Aug (not 21), 9.40pm, £13--£14.
Yummy, the Melbourne powerhouse of drag, dance, circus, and music, has been serving smash-hit events in numerous festivals across Australia and beyond. Yummy is the winner of Best Production and Best Ensemble (Cabaret) at the 2018 Greenroom Awards and Best Cabaret at Adelaide Fringe Weekly Awards…