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The variety show with all the stuff that you wouldn't show The Queen

Jonny Woo is counting down for the Un-Royal Variety – Hackney Empire, London

The variety show with all the stuff that you wouldn't show The Queen
Images courtesy of Jonny Woo
Un-Royal Variety – Hackney Empire, London

East London drag and cabaret impressario Jonny Woo is in final rehearsals for his latest production, the Un-Royal Variety at Hackney Empire in London.

We spoke with Jonny Woo for a behind-the-scenes look at what audiences can expect to experience:

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety. Photo: Simon PhippsJonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety. Photo: Simon Phipps

Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety. Photo: Simon Phipps

What was your inspiration that led you to staging the Un-Royal Variety?

I love the Hackney Empire, and having done the Gay Bingo 10-year show I really wanted to do another massive show.

I thought the format for The Royal Variety was also perfect for pastiche and parody and satire. I loved its cosy, safe programme but also loathed it at the same time, so wanted to do something that took political, provocative material and packaged it in a sort of warm, familiar setting. I like the juxtaposition, hence it’s Un-Royal. What you wouldn’t show The Queen.

Also, I know loads of amazing performers and just wanted to see their work on a massive stage. I’m as much creating the show for myself as the audience.

In many ways, this is old-school music hall variety, what is it about this form of performance that appeals to you?

I like its old school charm. I like the familiarity, I like the warmth – it fits the theatre, which has a rich history of variety.

A lot of older variety would comment on the topics of the day – I think that gets lost now when it translates to TV, there’s more permission to provoke in a live event.

I like the song and dance element, and love the sheer unashamed use of spectacle, for joy’s own sake.

2017 is the second-time that you’ve staged an Un-Royal Variety, anything that you’ll be doing differently?

I’ve bought back a load of last year’s acts, it’s an ensemble show. It’s about building up a core of artists who bring new work to the table. But also, I want to present brand new work.

Last year I did the Brexit musical, which was amazing to do and met with mixed reactions, but I think that’s cool. This year I’ve commissioned Lucy McCormick to make new work and I don’t care what she decides to do, I think the audience should be challenged.

I have a lot more women this year, last year I looked at the bill and said: ‘It’s all men…’ so I’m pleased we have more women headlining.

I learnt nothing from last year except get better mics! And nothing is cheap! It was amazing because of its faults. It’s a happening, a massive art piece. a process, it evolves, I’m not after perfection.

How have you selected the acts that will be featured in the Un-Royal Variety?

They are my favourite performers. I went to Edinburgh with my business partner and producer Reuben to find new acts and came back with the same ones. They are brilliant!

I select people I want to see and people I get on with.

CHRISTEENE is headlining this year and I always thought she was brilliant, but was quite scared of her but hung out with Paul – the person behind the character – and totally clicked. We became great buddies and I thought: ‘Here is someone I can work with.’

Also, I have some brand new acts – Nostalgia Of Mothership, an amazing funk band; Frieda Slaves, the hottest lip-syncing queen; and Leah Shelton from Australia who no one has ever seen.

Just people I love who I think other people will too.

What are some of the highlights that we should be looking out for at this year’s Un-Royal Variety?

Oh my god where to start! Amazing acrobatic opening, Diane Chorley re-enacts her TOTP’s appearance. Jayde Adams belting out a classic from Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer The Opera. The return of The Kate Middleton Choir, now pregnant. Amazing art works from James Davison as backdrops. Jacqui Potato couture! The band now has a brass section! New songs written by myself and Richard Thomas, an intro to Frank Lavander, a new topical song featuring myself, le Gateau Chocolat and Mawaan Rizwan, when shall I stop?

What do you hope that the audience feels when watching this year’s Un-Royal Variety?

Pulled apart and thrown back together a much more joyously liberated hotchpotch human being. Open to the wonders and challenges that our new world offers to us. Thrilled, excited, gob-smacked and seriously turned on. Talking about it until we return next year!

Read more from Gareth Johnson


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