This is a very comical and relevant performance. Whilst creative institutions like Disney consistently advocate an apparent genuine desire to represent minority groups and to fill our screens with diversity and acceptance, the said process seems to be unforgivingly slow, and there remains very little mainstream entertainment elsewhere with the same popularity, vitality, vision and potency that also allows for LGBT+ content. Happily Ever Poofter provides just that, aiming to create a world where gay fairytale romance is possible, nay imminent, and to celebrate it. The play appropriates Disney’s songs and magic to tell the story of a gay prince who finds himself seeking his happily ever after amidst the gay scene of Soho, London, far away from his magical kingdom. Solo performer and writer Rich Watkins pulls from a wide range of theatrical styles and techniques to devise an outrageous, outlandish and variegated performance, and this makes for a most enjoyable and manifold evening.
However, there remains a certain unilateralism to this text which is particularly irksome for me. I shall start with this. Audience members are greeted a while before entering the black box studio, just outside in the pub, by two muscular men in nothing but small, tight underwear — direct inspiration, or so it seems, from gay strip/sex clubs, popularised fetishes, and/or the infamous Pitt Crew from the hit American TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Immediately, we are forced to make associations between the world of the play and outrageous, in-your-face sexual provocation. Holding this in mind, we are then presented with direct references to chemsex, unprotected sex, irresponsible and reckless use of drugs such as G and PrEP, excessive alcohol consumption, and many others, and a noticeable pattern emerges.
This performance relies heavily on existing stereotypes, ideals and supposed libraries of common knowledge amongst gay men (that of celebrity divas, musical numbers, fashion brands and trends, etc.). Much like the high heels, glitter and overt references to anal sex also prevalent in Watkins’s text, these have become signifiers of liberation through re-appropriation of the secondhand shame towards not only sexuality but femininity [or, rather, “lack of masculinity”] and overall difference that the vast majority homosexual men experience daily. These signifiers, subverting and re-contextualising such shame, have become fundamental to gay culture, primarily, again, due to increased interest in and demand for modern-day drag culture.
The problem that this performance faces, relying so blatantly and heavily on these throughout, is that it starts to lose originality and voice. These items become thematic and are wildly overused, making for a unidimensional representation of gay men. As with all sensationalist works, there is a sheer lack of realism and gravity, replaced, instead, with comedy, extravagance and desire.
The problem I have with this performance is that it remains incredibly superficial. In doing so, it not only denies realism and regurgitates and reaffirms ideals forced upon the gay community from within, which ultimately become categorising and hence oppressive –– the opposite of what is desired –– but it idealises and glamorises risk and danger. Prince Henry, for example, remains without identity beyond his sexuality and “love of cock”. Any humanness, beyond the search for love, which is actually mispronounced in this performance as desire for sex, is completely omitted. As for celebrating drug use and the possibility of acquiring STIs from unprotected sex, without the necessary satire, this I find most problematic and damaging; such issues should be handled within the LGBT+ community with care –– not severity, seriousness, judgement or denouncement but care. I should note here that it is more that, rather than presenting these subjects with a deliberate and explicit tongue-in-cheek humour or amongst a wider and more cohesive/comprehensive scope of material, these subjects are repetitively presented as completely risk-free standards that “all” gay men encounter; this is not the case.
Indeed, there is one moment in this performance where sensationalisation takes a breather and we are hit with harsher material, and that is when Sleepy dies… This, however, seems ineffably out of place, a blip in a storm of extravagant impetuous sexual activity and drama. Not to mention that Sleepy’s death seems to be in vain, with Prince Henry continuing his raves just as normal with no reflection on the incident whatsoever.
All of this being said, the blatant subversion of Disney romance, with references to chemsex, Grindr, nudity and even death, certainly defines the comedy and tone of this performance. However, I feel that the significance of Disney in this performance needs to be readdressed. It feels as though a kooky tool for addressing underrepresentation of homosexual characters in the media –– which is good, that is what is desired –– but, omitting the backing tracks and the very beginning and end, what role does Disney actually play in this performance? In fact, Prince Henry is represented later on in the play as just a character from a generic fairyland when he talks to his “writer”. Is this Walt Disney himself? It seems not. All references to Disney seem to drain away, and Prince Henry becomes an unparticularised fairytale prince.
With Disney gone, so is our tool for uncovering underrepresentation –– although, perhaps this has already been lost to those sensationalist items addressed above. Perhaps, also, those homosexual individuals not ascribing to such activities will remain without representation for some time to come.
Sociopolitical significances aside, this performance, for what it is, despite having very little continuity and specified structure, is a very enjoyable one. Watkins is an energised and astute performer with good comedic timing and topical knowledge. Interactions with audience members, which play an integral role in this play, are organised finely, and Watkins’s witty remarks tailor themselves incredibly well to audience responses. He has clearly conceived these well. I would just be wary of the over-repetitious nature of the general interactions with the audience members as “citizens”, as this becomes rather tiresome, particularly at the beginning.
Watkins is an utterly transformative and versatile performer, presenting polished, clear-cut and well-conceived characters. Perhaps not the best of singers –– though this supports his charm, I believe –– but his songwriting abilities demonstrate promise; it is not easy to write to the constraints of pre-written music, and he succeeds not only to do this but to fill songs with topical and hilarious lyrics. I will say, however, that the choreography (by Simone Murphy), where dance sequences are concerned, could be far more zestful and imaginative.
However bleak and unidimensional I proclaim them to be, I cannot completely deny that there is truth behind the represented realities of not only the gay scene of Soho but of modern sexual interactions amongst gay men that Watkins cleverly crafts into engaging and riveting comedy, drawing from common mishaps, predicaments and scenarios in relation to hookups, clubs and the suchlike. In this way, Watkins provides his audience with a relatable, reflective and current agenda, allowing for a comedic exposure of topics and happenings still taboo, unspoken of and unshared today in a way which heterosexual affairs rather loudly are.
I do think, however, that this text sets itself up for something far different from accounts of promiscuity and libido-driven interactions. Watkins should consider much more carefully how each segment of the text relates to the others: what does the performance set out to do? And is it doing it? My answer would be no. The text seems to acquire multiple focuses, from Disney to love searches, to sex, to STI prevention, to issues with underrepresentation. It feels at times as though an untailored explosion of elements of sensationalist gay culture as opposed to a coherent rollercoaster through the world of a love-seeking fairytale prince. The figure of the prince, like all characters portrayed in this performance, rather than representative/expository of a subtextual cogent argument or the embodiment of a sociopolitical undertone, seems like a simple device to contextualise and accommodate the various, ever-changing [and sometimes extravagant] desires of the text.
As for technical components, these complement the material incredibly well. From harsh and dramatic spotlights to an underwhelming [and that is why it is brilliant] bubble machine to reversible backdrop features, the stage is filled lavished with surprising, unique and endearing oddities. Props and costumes definitely make this performance, allowing for a type of humour which asks us to stretch our imaginations, to believe that the dissatisfying and inexpensive is mystical and full of wonder –– my personal favourite being the handheld fan used to dazzle us with an ineffective puff on a [not actually] billowing pride flag. It is silly gags like these, combined with Watkins’s enthralling performativity, that make this performance so undeniably enjoyable.