Empress Stah at the Spiegeltent 27/05/10
2010 marks the 'Queer Up North’s' 18th Birthday, and in that time it’s become an important part of Manchester’s cultural scene. Since its conception in 1992 it has remained committed to presenting work that often defies easy categorisation whether it’s in the form of theatre, cabaret, music or art. All you need to join in the fun is an open mind and a ticket.
Though the Queer Up North programme takes places at different venues, the beating heart of the Festival is the Spiegeltent, which this year is proudly encamped near Canal Street; the centre of Manchester’s thriving gay community. Ostensibly a Spiegeltent is a large travelling tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass. This one is called, aptly enough, ‘La Gayola’ and she’s a grand old dame from the 1940s. She’s aging obviously, but still beautiful and very welcoming to all her visitors.
The compare for the evening was Dusty Limits who as well as keeping the audience entertained with quick-fire gags and innuendo, became at one stage, a drunken raconteur to sing a tender paean to vodka. He also gave a more sober rendition of probably the funniest song ever about self-harming. That Dusty chose to sing the lyrics in a Dick Van Dyke cockney accent only made it more hilarious. You’d think it would be impossible to laugh at such a grim subject – self-harming not Dick Van Dyke - but everybody did.
The show starts in earnest with surreal mime artist Ryan Styles, who starts his act dressed as a volcano (very topical!); then as a man who, with the help of a large white balloon, metamorphosis’s into a woman; and finally, gave a poignant depiction of old age using onions and cigarettes as props. It was enough to make you cry.
Of course the brightest star of the evening was Empress Stah. It’s acrobatics as an avant-garde spectacular ladies and gentlemen; a completely outrageous performance that’s more kamikaze than cabaret. The audience swooned as the Empress swung from the ceiling of La Gayola in various stages of nakedness. They looked through their fingers when she used a hypodermic needle to draw blood from her arm, then cheered after she squirted the contents into a glass of Champaign and knocked the bloody cocktail straight back. She did other things that I can’t bring myself to relate in a public forum, but I can safely say that Empress Stah certainly brought the evening to a glamorous climax.
Review by Phil King