REVIEW: Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show @ Hackney Empire

Photos by Holly Revell

It’s always a bit eye-roll inducing when society magazines use the phrase “a who’s who” when referring to events, but the crowd at Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Show at Hackney Empire on Saturday night really was a WHO’S WHO of London’s arts, fashion and queer scenes.

Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes “rubbed shoulders” with food critic Grace Dent, while the always gregarious Graham Norton flitted back and forth. A note about Graham while I’m here – I’ve met him a few times now at various events, and he’s ALWAYS been absolutely lovely, friendly and gracious. A famous gay man to aspire to!

Panti Bliss slunk into her seat with a flute of champagne as the lights dimmed, the susurrations sizzled out, and the show began!

The concept of the annual Un-Royal Show, for those who are unfamiliar, is a little similar to TV events like the Secret Policeman’s Ball or, you know, the Royal Variety Show. But actually interesting, and without a James Corden in sight. In fact, Jonny Woo, in his fabulous hosting turn, slagged off James Corden on stage. And if there’s one thing we love, it’s James Corden being slagged off. He represents the bloated mediocrity that’s plaguing our media at the moment, so it’s very important to slag him off.


Things high-kicked off with a fabulously over the top opening number from Jonny and a cohort of dancers and acrobats. Then it was straight into a turn from the self-professed “Duchess of Canvey”, Diane Chorley. A melding of music and stand-up, the humour to Diane is seaside-silly with an underlying riptide of tragicness. Cilla Black meets Abigail’s Party, Nighty Night meets Nunhead. If the stony silence of the American couple sat next to me is anything to go by, it is a quintessentially British type of humour. Which certainly isn’t a criticism! We like our humour layered and clever. In fact our sense of humour is one of few things to be patriotic about.

Diane Chorley

After Diane, came the instantly appealing comic Jayde Adams, unapologetic and hilarious in her commentary on East London and gentrification culture (two subjects that have been done to death over the last couple of years, but she managed to say different stuff and made it work, which was impressive).

Next, Peter & Bambi Heaven who, for me, were one of two gleaming high points of the evening (the other was Lucy McCormick, we’re getting to her). While Diane drew on the British humour we love, Peter & Bambi drew on the Australian – there was something decidedly Kath & Kim-ish about their tackalicious antipodean vibe. Throughout performing ridiculous, sexualized magic acts, it was their unwavering earnestness that made the whole thing so hilarious. It elicited extra clout, and gasps from the audience, when it was revealed that the magic acts were actually formidably complicated and well executed. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before and that HAS to be good.

Then was the turn of Lucy McCormick, the best part of the show. Her act, her presence, her vibe, is impossible to accurately convey on paper. It’s really a “you had to be there” kind of thing. It’s dark, it’s hilarious, it’s distressing, it’s uplifting. In the words of Jennifer Saunders reviewing Mamma Mia, it really does “beggar belief”. It is one the most diverting and original performances I’ve seen by anyone, ever. The fact that I’d like to get spit-roasted by her backing dancers also helped.

Lucy and her backing dancers.

It was followed by the show’s only low point in the form of stand-up comedian character Frank Lavendar. He’s a creation from Gareth Joyner, the man behind Myra DuBois. The whole joke is that he, er, tells bad jokes. That becomes apparent ten seconds into the act. So when the act then goes on for ages, with the same concept over and over again, it just becomes tiresome. Gareth reappeared as Myra in the second half and was, as always, side-splittingly hilarious. Stick to what you know Gareth!

AND ANOTHER THING. The show was too long. We were seated in the theatre at 7:30pm, and all bundled out around 11:30pm. FOUR HOURS. No matter how great something is, four hours is too long, especially with my millennial attention span and alcohol-addled bladder. I wouldn’t sit anywhere for four hours. I wouldn’t even sit on Nyle DiMarco for four hours.

Don’t get me wrong though, those are two very minor negatives. On the whole, the show was INCREDIBLE. The second half was more musical-focused, with punk pop band Nostalgia Of Mothership, the hilarious Kate Middleton Choir (a choir all dressed up as Kate Middleton, iconic) and the luminous Gateau Chocolat. And let’s not forget shit-smeared powerhouse CHRISTEENE. If you haven’t heard of her, don’t ask – I literally don’t have the words to explain.

What Jonny is doing is truly special. A lot of people claim to be giving platforms to new performers but Jonny really, truly is. A friend of mine Carmen was on stage throughout as one of the dancers, looking sensational in a fab curve-hugging pink dress and a cascading Jennifer Coolidge wig. She arrived on the East London queer scene from Enfield with a dime and a dream, and on Saturday night she was living her best, most fabulous life. And that’s what it’s all about!