Pageant, London Irish Centre, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Back in 1991, when Pageant opened Off-Broadway, the concept of a beauty pageant populated by drag queens may have seemed novel. That novelty may also have sustained it into its 2000 run at the Vaudeville Theatre, which netted it two Olivier Awards.

But this is 2017. The West End has seen better, funnier, more well-thought versions of drag in the likes of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the revival of La Cage aux Folles, while on TV Ru Paul’s Drag Race has elevated the competitive aspects of the beauty pageant, bundled them up with drag balls and produced a reality TV show that shows there is more to a drag performer than the onstage performance.

All of which makes Pageant seem rather old fashioned. Set in the finals of a cosmetic company-sponsored beauty pageant, six women from over the USA compete to become Miss Glamouresse.

A series of heats including a talent performance, make-up demonstration and a swimwear round culminate in selected members of the audience voting for the winner.

And that is pretty much it in terms of plot. The songs (lyrics by book writers Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, with music by Albert Evans) may nod to the show’s gender-flipped contestants, with their talk of “natural-born females” who all have “a little something extra”, but otherwise this plays out as an old-fashioned pageant.

And without a narrative storyline to lend the show some structure, what remains is a revue of fun songs interspersed with sketches that, at best, have one joke each. The heart sinks with each new make-up demonstration, at least until Kevin Grogan’s spaced-out Miss West Coast injects a much-needed sense of slapstick.

The highlights of the revue are the wannabe queens’ solo numbers, from Grogan’s tie-dye interpretive dance to John McManus’ evangelical gospel number, as his Miss Bible Belt gives the best solo performance of the evening, combining Christianity and capitalism in ‘Banking On Jesus’.

And as one might expect, it is in the solo moments that each of the performers gets the best chance to shine. Adam O’Shea’s Miss Deep South – majoring in “home economics and cancer research” – gives McManus a run for his money, but some of the other queens’ performance pieces seem designed to engineer a public vote for others.

Holding the show together is Miles Western – Olivier winner in 2001 for his performance as Miss West Coast in the Vaudeville production – as the outrageously coiffed MC, Frankie Cavilier.

Oily smooth and able to put down the drunken hecklers that a show starting at 9pm seems duty bound to attract, Western’s performance is hampered only by the outrageous wig and the most ill-fitting suit ever to see a sequin.

Sadly, the trichological and costume misfires don’t end there, with some of the girls’ paddings coming unstuck during the show’s physical exercise round.

And while the sextet of drag performers amuse and entertain more than this show’s structure seems to want to let them, there is still the crushing feeling that this is a production whose revival cannot overcome its dated, limited roots.