Royal Vauxhall is proof that this was the only threesome that was worth having in the 1980s. Riotous and surprisingly poignant.
It’s 1988 and three of Britain’s best loved people are bored and in need of a night out: Freddie Mercury, Kenny Everett, and Princess Diana. Mercury has discovered he is HIV+, Kenny is yet to discover his similar fate, and Diana is deeply unhappy about her marriage. So, in a cloud of champagne, cocaine, and disguises, they take a trip to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
The premise of Royal Vauxhall is not (for legal purposes) based on truth, but rather a rumour that such an event happened in 1988. Even though it might be a fantasy that such a night out happened rather than a fact (although, all rumours are based in some truth, right?) it hasn’t stopped wonderfully wry cabaret song writer and performer, Desmond O’Conner, taking the gossip and turning it into a wonderful little musical. The premise for Royal Vauxhall could make for very easy and frivolous campery, but O’Connor actually plays with a much deeper sense of the characters: Freddie’s distress at his diagnosis, Kenny’s bitterness for needing to remain in the closet to preserve his career, and Diana’s unhappiness and boredom in her marriage to Charles. O’Connor uses these strains to explore the relationships they have with each other and help build an intricate push and pull towards each of their respective revelations within Royal Vauxhall’s narrative.
But that certainly doesn’t mean Royal Vauxhall is dry and stodgily dramatic. Being cabaret royalty themselves, O’Connor brings his trademark bombast and twists to make Royal Vauxhall very funny and fun. There are even full-on cabaret skits, with audience participation and back and forth repartee with them, all of which harbour plenty of laugh out loud moments and wonderfully wry jokes. But O’Connor has really woven some unexpected poignancy into Royal Vauxhall that really takes you by surprise and makes the show unexpected and deep, despite also being riotous and tremendous fun.
The only possible criticism for Royal Vauxhall is the blend of theatre and cabaret. Cabaret moments are very well defined from moments that are far more theatrical. These don’t sit too comfortably side by side and the switching between the two can feel a little awkward at times, but not so awkward that it takes away from any of the sublime silliness or the more provocative moments.
Music & Lyrics
O’Connor is best known for his songs, and the music and lyrics for Royal Vauxhall is a wonderful showcase of his songwriting ability. All the songs have plenty of wit and energy poured into them, and are a gas to listen to. O’Connor also blends in familiar riffs of Queen songs to help give them the familiarity of the time, but never feel contrived and still have a sense of originality in how O’Connor moulds these known tunes into something different. However, the songs are not simple diversion or fillers for time, but form part to the narrative’s progression and also character development. It’s a slick integration that is often missing or not done as well in other new musicals, as Royal Vauxhall’s songs are very much a part of the show and not some novelty addendum.
Direction & Production
Although Royal Vauxhall looks quite low budget, it’s gloriously well thought out and only does with production what it needs to do. A game of Trivial Pursuit, costumes, a strap on, and some other clutters of paraphernalia are all used and executed to energetic and comic effect. Indeed, there’s also a visit from a certain starman that is just brilliant in itself.
The only problem is that with Royal Vauxhall’s cabaret moments, and the fact that it was developed at the eponymous modern day venue itself, is that a more traditional stage is probably not the best place for it. It really begs for the informal and open space like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and the energy and dynamic that comes with it. However, the direction ensures that there is plenty of space in the show for the performers to really work their effortless cabaret schtick, but also a focus and reverence for the more heartfelt moments to ensure they have the desired impact.
With every great cabaret show, there needs to be great cabaret performers behind it, and Royal Vauxhall really has these. Given O’Connor’s status quo in the cabaret world, he’s really been able to pull together some truly astonishing names, such as Sarah-Louise Young, Matthew Jones (better known as Mannish), and stage and screen actor Tom Giles. All embody their characters fantastically, from the frantic sarcasm of Kenny Everett from Giles, to cocksure glamour of Freddy Mercury from Jones, and the shining but unashamedly blemished refinement of Diana by Young. Plus, all can sing fantastically well which is generally a good thing for a musical.
But it’s really the rapport between them and how they respond to each other, the audience, and the show that is just marvellous. On the night I reviewed, there were significant problems with Jones’ mic, but the entire cast made it an integral part of the fun and the show that it really wasn’t an issue. Whatever happens, Young, Jones, and Giles keep the pace snappy and the joviality flowing, ensuring every crevice of the audience gets a lick of laughter and glee.
Join the fiercest queens of the 1980s for a night to remember, Royal Vauxhall is a musical party fit for a princess.
Royal Vauxhall plays at the Underbelly Med Quad (venue 302), Edinburgh, EH8 9AG, until 29 August 2016. Tickets are £11 – £12.50 (concessions available). To book, visit tickets.edfringe.com.