- Sequins and Spirits
It was necessary to pass through a small outdoor courtyard before one could enter the July 2019 Queerseum Bloolips and Radical Drag pop-up exhibition at London’s Platform Southwark. On the night that I attended, most of the patio chairs were taken, and guests were engaged in animated conversations, many punctuating their exchanges with drinks or cigarettes. The party atmosphere and vibrant sense of community continued inside the exhibit celebrating the legacy of this legendary queer performance company.
In promoting the Platform exhibition, Bloolips promised a show featuring “all our gear before it finally ends up in an archive or landfill.” The lines between what was destined for the trash pile or historical repository were lovingly, if temporarily, bedazzled for the ten-day exhibit. Posters and photographs from Bloolips productions were taped around the walls with minimal accompanying information, almost as if it was presumed by curator Dan de la Motte that the majority of the pop-up attendees were there as much to share the space with each other as to learn about the company’s remarkable history.
Bloolips and Radical Drag reaffirmed the British company’s vital role in twentieth-century LGBTQ+ theatre. Founded in 1977 by actor and activist Bette Bourne, Bloolips is perhaps best known in the United States for their 1991 collaboration with the lesbian feminist company Split Britches on the OBIE Award-winning Belle Reprieve, the gender-bending queer satirical rethinking of A Streetcar Named Desire, shown at La MaMa in 1991. Unfortunately, outside of Belle Reprieve—and unlike the work of Bourne’s American contemporary, Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company—playscripts for the other sixteen Bloolips productions staged between 1977–1998 have not yet been published. A 2013 documentary by Jeremy Jeffs and Mark Ravenhill about Bourne and growing up gay in 1950s London, It Goes with the Shoes, features excerpts from several productions, and [End Page 90] additional bootleg clips are available online, but the company’s work is generally less accessible outside of the archive. For this reason, Queerseum London (founded in 2016), a collective of activists, queer educators, and artists, deserves praise for organizing the exhibit and bringing the work of Bloolips to a broader, and younger, audience.
Bourne trained at Central School of London in the 1960s and was building a successful mainstream acting career when he dropped out to join Britain’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and move into a drag commune in Notting Hill. The New York City–based gay cabaret group Hot Peaches provided a model for working as an out actor and, after touring Europe with the company, Bourne was inspired to found Bloolips. By their second show, The Ugly Duckling (1977), the company’s aesthetic of radical drag began to take shape. Bloolips co-founder Paul Shaw defines radical drag as “androgynous drag made from anything lying around, the whiteface, the tap dancing, the fusion of music hall meets gender fuck.” No attempt was made to impersonate women; they were queer men in spectacular-but-cheap dresses. Over the next two decades, with a flexible ensemble of members including Gretel Feather, Naughty Nickers, Philharmonia, and Julia Dares (the only female Bloolip), the company toured original pieces such as Lust in Space and Gland Motel worldwide on a bare-bones budget—relying on box office receipts rather than grants.
The scrappy Bloolips aesthetic was mirrored in the exhibit at Platform, a new multidisciplinary artist-run venue located in Waterloo. For the Bloolips and Radical Drag exhibition, virtually every inch of wall space in the low-ceilinged white-walled open gallery was covered with archival images, and a giant scrapbook filled with two decades of black-and-white photographs and press clippings was set on a table in the center of the room for perusal. Improvised mannequins wearing fantastic Bloolips costumes held court in each corner. While some of the displayed posters, photos, or collages were framed, most were double-stick taped; this was not a polished, chronological, show. The images on the walls...