There are few Drag Queens who can call upon not one, but two celebrity guests to perform in a tent, but such is the acclaim of Vema Celli that calling on a couple for her show Iconic: A Brief History of Drag at Underbelly Festival was no problem.
Velma Celli, AKA Ian Stroughair – who was previously a West End ensemble regular before making the break into the world of Drag – coerced her friends Kerry Ellis and Jessie Wallace into appearing as Drag Kings in the one-night-only show.
But actually, the charismatic performer didn’t really need them. That’s not to say their performances were bad – it’s always a treat to hear West End leading lady Kerry Ellis’ glorious vocals and soap star Jessie Wallace gave an added comedic element with her unusual departure from the stage – but the show was so well written and performed that the audience didn’t need a break from the action.
Velma Celli first flounced into the auditorium in a black and silver tutu, while singing a gritty rendition of ‘Sugar Daddy’ from the musical Hedwig. And that wasn’t the only nod to his former musical theatre career, with a wonderful slowed down version of ‘The Sex is in the Heel’ from Kinky Boots – showing off a fantastically resonant voice – and a great bit of lyrical horseplay to the tune of ‘Roxi’ from Chicago, a show which Stroughair appeared in opposite Jerry Springer.
It was all strung together with personal anecdotes and some really interesting stories from the ‘Tranny Bible’ – a glittery tome, which descended from the roof at the beginning – including an enlightening encounter at Stonewall in New York, which had been one of the inspirations behind the show.
There were also tributes to some of the Drag greats mixed in too, with David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’, ‘Stranger in this World’ from the Boy George musical Taboo and Rupaul’s ‘Sissy that Walk’.
Velma Celli’s wonderful comedic talent was showcased throughout and the large crowd were both moved and entertained for the hour long show, which was brought to a close with the Drag classic ‘I am What I am’.
This was a really well thought out and beautifully performed show, that deserves to be seen by a bigger audience in the future.
Reviewed by Nicky Sweetland
Photo: Scott Rylander