Blending drag and cabaret, this new creative show succeeds in being emotional, educational, and hysterical – all at breakneck speed. Topsie Redfern is the grade A girl your mother warned you about.
Thursday 21st October 2021, 7:30pm
The Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington, London
Once upon a time, in the attic of a pub, there was a giggly drag queen running through the audience, spinning around a bubble wand whilst frenetically singing ‘Part Of Your World’ from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, begging for the audience to join in. The audience was happy to oblige, and for a couple of hours in the 40-seater venue, Topsie Redfern performed her intimate fairytale.
When not performing as Topsie, Nathan Kiley is a seasoned professional with a long history in the West End. In this new show written by Nathan and Sarah Chew, Topsie/Nathan recounts stories from their youth, educates on queer history, and reconnects with their lost Irish heritage. Intimate storytelling is signposted by songs old and new that have been adapted specifically for this tour around the UK.
The compact set is filled to the brim with ‘whosits and whatsits galore’: various trinkets, children’s books, and empty picture frames are dimly lit by electric tea lights directly from poundland – all to be used as props throughout the show. Musical director Conor Fogel accompanies on piano, as Topsie weaves fourth-wall breaking complex stories through song and dance at a speed that leaves her sweaty and out of breath on the floor after every round.
This rapid vignette approach to entertainment would be impossible to maintain if not for Topsie’s unrelenting energy and obvious star power. Yes she is out of breath, yes the makeup has smeared all over her hair, but the performance never falters; nor does it ever seem like too much. It’s all the fun of Disney without the embarrassment of going to Disneyland in your 30’s. You would be forgiven for assuming it’s suitable for children, but within the first ten minutes Topsie has already blurted out multiple ‘daddy’ jokes, thrown her silicone tits at the audience to ‘have a feel’, and subsequently dished out the hand sanitiser.
Early on, Topsie notices me scribbling in a notebook and hands me a glass of champagne: ‘this better be a five star review’ she announces to the audience.
What is most admirable about Topsie is her ability to tell an entire story, in fantastic detail, between lines of already difficult songs. Whether it’s Tonight from West Side Story (performed with operatic aplomb), Cell Block Tango, or newer unheard music (Wanderlust), Topsie reframes the classics, giving them a mostly humorous but sometimes dark or educational twist. Conversely, the Irish folk-songs are performed without interjections; her beautiful tone combining with the simple music leaving the audience in emotional ruin.
The Disney-esque first act serves to excite and showcase Topsie’s energy, but it simultaneously lures us into a false sense of security. The second act takes a much darker turn, and the bubble wand that initially delighted us takes on a frightening new meaning as she explains – the rate at which bubbles are produced correlates to the number of queer youth experiencing hate crimes in modern Britain. Topsie knows how to be funny, raunchy, and entertaining, but it’s when we see the tender side of Nathan that the show really hits us right in the feels.
She deftly leaps between stories about the AIDS crisis, Section 28, Alan Turing, and Lady Astor, but the lessons are never haughty; they are used together with the autobiographical content as Nathan battles with anxieties of ‘not doing enough’: ‘the fear of not doing everything stops us from doing anything’. These sobering moments are balanced beautifully with light comic relief, for example, when Nathan’s drama teacher tells him to ‘stop being your hair’.
In a breathtaking final act involving wishmaking and Bette Midler’s The Rose, she reads from a modern children’s book where a prince discovers his queerness with his parents’ support. Topsie singled me out earlier in the show, and now a father points at me and says ‘look, even the journalist is crying’. Topsie has taken us on a whirlwind stop tour of the homophobic past and the queer present, and we leave the room with full hearts and puffy eyes, dreaming of a future where everybody gets a happily ever after.