You’ll recall one of our highlights from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was Velma Celli’s fabulously low-key, high-energy cabaret show: Iconic.
Well, Ian Stroughair’s alter-ego returned to the London stage last week with a charming concoction of talent, sweat, sass and volume for a magic-inspired show for Halloween that thrilled us all over again.
This “premiere” was, in reality, Velma’s new set list: a series of fantastic show tunes, sung with often wrenching emotion, by bloke in a frock. What’s not to love?!
Complete with covers of Queen, Defying Gravity and a duet of “Whatever Happened to Class” with Tiffany Graves (who owned the role of Velma Kelly in the West End production of Chicago for so many years), this is a rollicking good time. It ticks a lot of boxes you might hope for from a drag act singing live.
What sets Velma Celli apart is the risks she takes and Stroughair’s mischievous air, which draws the audience in and makes us all complicit in his gossipy vamping and fourth-wall deconstructions of West End and Broadway musicals, as well as his own act. And the Art Deco intimacy of the The Crazy Coqs, hidden underground at Piccadilly Circus’s Brasserie Zedel, is perfect for it; transporting you to a time when good cabaret was an artform in itself.
And Velma Celli is a master of cabaret!
By her own admission at the top of the act, Equinox is still a work in progress. There is not yet the clear through-line in this set that Iconic has developed over its years of performance. That show is a powerful retelling of gay and drag culture, as well as Stroughair’s coming out, told through the classic show tunes of the subculture.
Nevertheless, even in this show’s raw state, Stroughair’s talent and Velma’s charm makes this a great ride, with each song being an exciting diversion down an unexpected alleyway leading to places even Velma might not know.
And the stand-out moments came as a surprise to Velma too.
The second number is the completely unexpected choice of Poor Unfortunate Souls from Disney’s Little Mermaid. It turns out that Velma Celli is made to be Ursula in the inevitable Broadway translation of the animated classic! So good and so fun is this rendition that it took the rest of the set a little while to recover. [A recovery that Defying Gravity didn’t manage – Velma’s self-deprecation saves this from being just another queen’s attempt at a technically difficult but not especially enjoyable bit of Broadway belting.]
And then Velma sings Radiohead’s Creep… And that’s the heart of the show! This is a truly show-stopping performance and we look forward to seeing this set again once it’s developed into the awkward, adult sequel that Iconic deserves. The journey from childhood nostalgia pieces like Hocus Pocus through to these more adult pieces will be a cathartic and exhilarating show we can’t wait to see; and getting to see an artist like Velma Celli develop this show is what makes live performance great!
We left the bar rejuvenated, inspired and smiling. What a gift for any performer to give!
Go and see Velma Celli whenever you can. And see her again in six months or a year’s time. Not only does Stroughair deserve your support, but you’ll have a bloody good time while you’re at it!