By Rosie Niven
When a sultry drag queen in a sequinned dress steps up to the stage at the Factory Theatre on Monday night, the audience holds their breath. Informed only by reviews of performances in Edinburgh and New York, nobody really knows what to expect - why is a drag queen performing cabaret rather than lip syncing? Why doesn't she wear a wig? And most importantly, who is Velma Celli?
The moment Velma opens with a deep and sensual rendition of Lady Gaga's Marry the Night, all questions dissipate, and we are thrust into Velma's sparkly world. Velma's vocal range and ability are incredible, and in between moments of shock and awe we find ourselves singing along with the former West End star in a beautiful moment of unity with people we've never met. From Lady Gaga, to Whitney Houston, to David Bowie, Velma takes our hands and leads us on a journey through some of the most iconic artists in drag (and LGBTQ+) history.
While it is impossible to fit the entire history of drag into a 75 minute show, Velma presents the audience with exactly what the show's title promises - a brief one. However brief, these historical lessons sit comfortably in between heartfelt renditions of songs we know and love. Each small fact we are gifted informs the way we hear the next song, as we begin to understand the struggles and the triumphs behind these renowned artists. Listening to the story of Whitney Houston's relationship with her assistant and being outed as bisexual posthumously, her hit 'I Will Always Love You' takes on an entirely new meaning, and a few audience members were visibly effected, quietly wiping away tears. We are presented with another heartfelt moment in the retelling of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, including the actions of drag queen Marsha P Johnson, which played a crucial role in the development of the gay liberation movement. Finishing this story with a rendition of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Am What I Am' was incredibly touching and captured the audience from the first note.
Velma's impassioned theatricality drives this performance through a whirlwind of LGBTQ+ history without a single dull moment. Her ability to shift seamlessly between artists in an exhilarating mashup of pop star impersonations provokes the audience into an excited sing-a-long, as we witness everyone from Anastacia, to Cher, to Shakira.
Iconic: A Brief History of Drag wowed, delighted, and educated its audience, and has a very important place in the growing representation of LGBTQ+ artists. It was an absolute joy to see an unfiltered queer character telling unfiltered queer stories, and to see the audience listening and learning. I have only one criticism of Velma Celli's work: that it was a one-night performance and I can't see it again.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.