Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Boy Looked at Johnny

Johnny Woo repeatedly reminds the audience that he is “alt. Drag perf. Art”. Whether this means pairing a beard and killer heels – simultaneously undermining the drag queen perfection, or adding a spoonful of surrealism to routines that increasingly abandon the traditional drag skills of impersonation for something more oblique and cutting, Woo is unafraid to risk amiability in a show that moves towards absurdism.

Woo’s power is based on the tension between drag and live art. The highly strung persona – he screams “don’t touch me” before dragging one audience member into a routine closer to a stag show – transcends the casual cattiness of more, ahem, mainstream drag, heading into neurosis and disorientation. And when Woo adds a social commentary, as in the aggressive techno encore, which challenges homophobic abuse, or in a waking dream of retail work, Woo marries the glamour of drag and the immediacy of performance art.

Managing to reference drag iconography – like Priscilla’s trailing dress – and wandering into more distressing territory – the wild night out he promises frequently turns into chaos, Woo is confident and capable of integrating minor problems into his act. The failure to finish one tongue twister becomes like the juggler who deliberately drops a ball: it’s hard to tell when Woo is undercutting polished professionalism or dealing with genuine miscues from the music maestro. After ten years in the business, Woo is collating various routines, a snapshot of a decade at the line between entertainment and more serious concerns. It’s a deadly combination, and no-one can get more sensuality and emotion from a gorilla mask and long legs than Johnny Woo. 

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