[Review:] KHANDI SHOP, The Pleasance Theatre, London.
NB: 1) Given the nature of drag performances, credits in this review are limited to the names of the on-stage personae we are presented. 2) This is a recurring performance, different every time it is staged; this review can only speak conclusively of the particular performance to which I was invited.
This was a rather underwhelming performance, overall, but I shall start with the positives.
Each performer has a distinct style and aesthetic; they have each clearly worked on these. In terms of performativity, Asia Thorne outshines all others with an astounding energy, vigour and vitality, expressivity and confidence. She demonstrates a wonderful corporeal control and articulacy and great talent. The most refined and articulate performance, though, comes from contemporary burlesque dancer Cleopantha. Everything from music choice to costume to narrative is slick in this performance. However, the delivery of her repertoire remains a substantial issue, and now I move on to negatives.
Continuing with Cleopantha’s burlesque performance, movements such as licking her index finger quickly become easy and overplayed references, and her jumping into a splits is not only underwhelming in its poor execution but looks simply painful, not erotic. Her difficulty in tearing the main bulk of her costume away — rather the crux of her performance — unfortunately demonstrates an unrefined skill, also. These elements ought to have been better rehearsed. It seems at the moment that Cleopantha is simply relying on the magic of a live audience and stage to gift her with vigour and precision. Despite these items, however, choreography does remain impactful and effective in itself, overall.
As for Mahatma Khandi, this performer has wonderful facial and upper-body expressivity, especially in solo performances, but I emphasise that such expressivity is restricted to the waist upwards. Her movements are also incredibly repetitive — which will be an exhausting running theme in this review. I think, for example, to her rendition of ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton, wherein she simply plays an air piano for almost the entirety of the song’s duration, pointing — supposedly — at two audience members every so often to perform a flirtatious or hypersexual gesture, and doing nothing else of interest. I write ‘supposedly’, because she does not actually fix her gaze or the target of her pointing on any given audience member whatsoever, and what is intended to be a self-mocking moment of intimacy between spectator and performer is lost in a vapid caricatural allusion.
During initial performances, we see Dosa Cat regularly enter the stage, overtly intending to upstage Mahatma and steal her limelight. This is incredibly poorly executed, with Dosa being weakly ‘carried’ back off, putting up a half-baked fight. This happens over four times, making this yet another sorely repeated motif. This is also a great example of the sheer lack of corporeal and muscular awareness, tension and expressivity from which most of these performers suffer — I say ‘most’, as this does not reflect Asia Thorne. This is a completely unrealistic and half-hearted display, and to have such a weak ‘joke’ repeated so many times exacerbates this effect, or lack thereof.
I should note here, too, between considering Mahatma and Dosa’s performances, that all performers — again, except for Asia Thorne — struggle to mouth the words to their songs in sync, or to ‘lipsync’ accurately, to use the appropriate terms. This is incredibly distracting, illusion-shattering, underwhelming and unprofessional. This is, after all, at least a third of these performers’ respective acts. Ironically, despite this accuracy I have attributed to Asia, her lipsync-ing is far too performative, making for a stark contrast against the other performers: she is overexpressive to an unbelievable and almost desperate degree.
On to Dosa Cat. With such a big lead-up to their performance and with such acclaim from fellow performers, I would have expected a great deal more from Dosa. As I shall elaborate below, Dosa’s performance overrelies upon the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of cultural references and forms, as with their quote-heavy text that simply sees them walking from the centre to the front of the stage, pause, mouth [again, out of sync] along with their audio, pointing out to the audience with a sassy and confrontational gesture, and then returning to the middle of the stage. Oh, and a sheepish, stiff lap dance on an unsuspecting [and clearly rather uncomfortable!] audience member, just for the added sensationalist effect. Again, a promising aesthetic from Dosa, but performance is just incredibly lacking. It seems that the mere presence of a drag performer in and amongst the audience members is what makes Dosa’s next performance so exhilarating, as it most certainly is not their repertoire, expression and variation.
As written above, Asia Thorne is an excellent performer, expressive, vitalised, skilled. Contrastingly, whilst it is clear that she has a very varied skillset to showcase, her solo performances do not do this fact justice. Again, I shall elaborate on intertextual references below, but Thorne’s solo act is so littered with audio clips and music changes that it becomes an overly fragmented and bipartite display, attempting to incorporate everything in such a way that it really ends up being about nothing. Narrative is completely lost, and the jarring audio seems to inspire a jarring physicality, with movements left half-finished, interrupted by the next auditory material.
Prinx Silver suffered from perhaps the greatest lack of impetus and full-body articulacy, which was most disappointing. I can honestly say that I do not know what I learned about this performer or their performance style, because structure and repertoire were pretty much nonexistent beyond ‘serving face and body’. Whilst Prinx has clearly mastered appearance-based illusionism, as I mentioned in the introduction to this review was the case for all performers, this was clearly not their main objective, judging from the attempts at upside-down splits or the narrative-based[?] vicar costume. Furthermore, strumming a balloon as though a guitar and smouldering for an entire song in their next performance alongside the majority of the cast rather loses its appeal and effect, I am afraid, within the very first of three minutes during which this is done.
There seems to be an anti-religious theme throughout the collective’s history, referenced by Mahatma herself and, of course, demonstrated in this, Prinx Silver’s first, solo act. This satire would be better welcomed and comprehensible if its relevance, quality and nature were better communicated. Simply entering in a vicar’s outfit and launching a bible and crucifix into the house is not enough to consolidate a working narrative.
Similarly, there seems to be an enormous overreliance upon intertextual knowledge throughout this performance, from these satirical religious exploitations to the sassy voiceovers of memes and TV shows, etc., to the popular songs that accompany performances like Asia Thorne’s. Intertextual features are perfectly acceptable, but they should complement and progress the performance, not replace, hinder or outshine it as they do regularly throughout this instalment of Khandi Shop. The rendition of High School Musical’s ‘Bop to the Top’, for instance, or Dosa, Mahatma and Asia’s performance of various songs from Sister Act — again, odd religious themes — have no relevance to the rest of the show whatsoever. They are not introduced at all, integrated well into the programme of the show, or reflected upon afterwards. We are simply to accept these random performances as sensical and fitting. They are not.
I must admit that I was incredibly surprised to learn that this performance labels itself as an ‘evening of tooth ache inducing cabaret [sic]’. I cannot begin to fathom what the creatives think High School Musical and ‘A Thousand Miles’ have to do with cabaret… And as for ‘tooth ache inducing [sic]’, I recognise the title of this performance and Mahatma’s ‘surname’ but still have no clue whatsoever as to where the theme of ‘candy’ has gotten to in this performance… Scavenging fruitlessly for any sign whatsoever of how these elements have been worked into this cabaret-less cabaret, I must say that I find it rather headache-inducing, more than anything else…