Holly Stars, based on an original idea by Christopher D Clegg
Tuckshop & Trafalgar Theatre Productions
The Lowry, Salford
October 13-16, 2021; 2hr 17min inc 20min interval
They say less is more, but in the theatre, more is quite often more. When it comes to a drag murder mystery, more is absolutely more. It's a shame, therefore, that Death Drop leaves the audience wanting, well… more.
It all starts so well. A crack of thunder, a flash of light and the secretive Lady von Fistenburg (played brilliantly by Vinegar Strokes) emerges into the camp drawing room of Shantay Manor singing a Bond theme-style opening number Shirley Bassey would have been proud of. It is 1991, Jimmy Savile is an appropriate topic of conversation, Madonna is the Queen of Pop and preparations are well underway to celebrate Charles and Di's 10th wedding anniversary. Apart from a downstairs bathroom flooded with excrement, things are all going to plan.
One by one, the dinner party guests arrive through the Noel's House Party front door. Bitter newspaper editor Morgan Pierce (Karen From Finance), Tory misogynist Rich Whiteman (Richard Energy), weather girl Summer Raines (Ra'Jah O'Hara), the list goes on. Why have they all been invited by a host they've never met, what secrets are they all hiding and when are the Royal couple turning up?
If this all sounds a little familiar, that's kind of the point. Tuck Island bears a scarily close resemblance to Christie's Soldier Island. So scary, in fact, that access to the mainland is about to be cut off, the phone lines are about to be slashed and the visitors are about to start being bumped off.
Death Drop, on tour around the UK after a successful West End run, is presented as Dragatha Christie, but it's really a killer panto for adults.
And that's the problem. You can't underplay or soft-sell panto. You've got to go for it. The cast here all feel like they're holding back. When our first unfortunate dinner guest chokes to death (slowly) on a crispy pancake, we want to see vomit flying across the stage. The show is crying out for acerbic asides to the audience, not anodyne and half-hearted pretend corpsing. Why are we not laughing out loud at musical numbers and lip syncs instead of cringing at tired tongue twisters?
While the first half disappoints, the second ups the pace and the laughs come thicker and faster. But, sadly, the show can't help becoming a parade of exposition, deaths and accusations. It ends up dragging, pardon the pun.
All that aside, there is still plenty to love here. As washed up pop star Shazza, drag royalty Willam is on top form. The inevitable performance of his one-hit wonder is a real ensemble highlight, although Georgia Frost as Phil Maker nearly steals the show. Isobel Pellow's costumes are fabulous and Justin Williams' colourful country house set design is evocative and fun. It's so good to see the drag king tradition represented wonderfully on stage too.
Then there is Holly Stars. The comedian has not only written the show (based on an original idea by Christopher D Clegg) but she plays all three Bottomley sisters (Brie, Blue and Spread) with aplomb. A real talent.
The style and beauty of American drag, as made so popular by Ru Paul, combined with the rough-round-the-edges humour of British drag, can be a magic pairing. There's a brilliant idea here, some good material and a stage full of fabulously talented superstars. The press night audience was lapping it up. But it could have been so much more.
Tickets and info here