Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo on the growth of drag and whether it's now become part of the mainstream
In another world, Nigerian born artist George Ikediashi would be a lawyer. Happily, he eschewed this traditional route and became drag-inflected diva, Le Gateau Chocolat, with a soaring operatic baritone that makes grown men weep, women lose their shit, and everyone in-between go crazy.
Having wowed audiences in a recent National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, and melted hearts everywhere with semi-autobiographical triumph Black, he returns to the Edinburgh Festival after a two-year break with two shows – Icons, a pop culture cabaret extravaganza, and Duckie, a children's show loosely based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling.
Le Gateau Chocolat first drew attention during his time with famous cabaret La Clique, but has become a Fringe favourite with his commanding, soulful voice and a respect for cabaret's richest traditions. Icons sees Le Gateau expanding his already impressive repertoire, from Meatloaf to Cyndi Lauper to Stephen Sondheim, and tackling serious themes: 'It celebrates our commonality through the music, artists, and events that have impacted our lives. Sure, they are particular to me, but my work has always been about interrogating an often forgotten truth; we are all, or would like to be, humans just being.'
Duckie takes a different approach, as it's for a child-friendly audience, but the themes he explored in Black are very much to the fore, as he explains: 'With so many of my shows celebrating difference, and having been severely bullied as a baby chocolate, I saw Duckie not only as an opportunity, but a responsibility to sow those seeds early. You are different, sure, but you are enough. For my nieces, for baby chocolate … sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you don't become a swan, but being a duck is plenty.'
'Bullying; homophobia, body-shaming – all are lofty, heavy themes, but they are very real and feature in the piece,' he explains. 'Kids are a very hungry and honest audience, if you have them they will let you know; and the moment you don't, they let you know that as well. There's something very exhilarating about that – having to be very present. Icons is more like talking to a room full of mates.'
Jonny Woo's All Star Brexit Cabaret / c. Steve Ullathorne It seems drag is everywhere at the moment, particularly during the festival, even appearing on adverts for brands seeking a little more glamour and edge. Both Icons and Gingzilla's show at Assembly George Square promise histories of drag, and RuPaul's Drag Race has kept drag in the popular consciousness for ten seasons. On the subject of the seeming ubiquity of mainstream drag, Le Gateau says, 'Everything has its season, its 15 minutes if you will, BUT some were before the 15 and WILL BE there long after. There is room for everybody, honouring the responsibility and privilege of wielding a microphone and having a platform.'
Le Gateau's friend and All Star Brexit Cabaret co-star Jonny Woo, adds: 'I don't think that it is mainstream. We have no Lily Savage on ITV, or Dame Edna, or Hinge and Bracket on daytime TV. God, I'm old,' he laughs. 'It's a thing at the moment. I think if Drag Race films in the UK, that style of drag still has space to gain traction and we'll see more of it. But I don't think drag will take over, I think its moment flirting with the mainstream will pass, maybe a few faces will linger, and it'll carry on being a pretty niche part of entertainment and pretty much the preserve of the gay scene. On the Fringe, there is tons of it this year, but most of it is from pretty talented guys and girls and comes with integrity and I welcome its proliferation.'
Woo's own show, Jonny Woo's All Star Brexit Cabaret, demonstrates how drag and cabaret can do more than entertain, addressing crucial debates with flair and finesse. 'It is a light-hearted musical satire about that vote and how we behaved towards each other,' says Woo. 'It's not full of statistics, neither is it an excuse to push a one-sided agenda, more a retelling of our recent shared history through song.' With Le Gateau himself 'singing a very dry, bass baritone Farage,' All-Star Brexit Cabaret follows Woo's increasingly experimental take on drag's potential.
As drag constantly evolves as an art form, so too do the themes explored within the shows. Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo's respective shows reflect on the zeitgeist in bold, provocative and entertaining ways, whether looking at the political landscape, or the challenges future generations will face. From its roots in gay cabaret through the rise of drag kings, the medium has proved versatile and ambitious, and Le Gateau's ambitions are as expansive as the form: 'My goal is to keep growing as an artist, honing what it is I want to say and interrogate, and finessing how best to vehicle this.'
Le Gateau Chocolat: Icons, Assembly George Square Gardens, until 26 Aug (not 13, 20) 7.30 pm, £13--£14 (£12--£13). Duckie, Summerhall, until 12 Aug, 2pm £12 (£10). Jonny Woo's All Star Brexit Cabaret, Assembly George Square Gardens, until 27 Aug (not 13, 20), 6pm, £14--£15 (£13--£14).
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