For his final issue at QX, Editor Cliff asked me if I’d review Panti’s current run at the Soho Theatre for him. Of course, I obliged. He made a point of reminding me to bring my note pad and pen.
by Jonny Woo
I’d been in town all day and left it ‘til minutes before showtime to grab a receipt book and red biro from the newsagents’ opposite the Soho Theatre.
As the final bars of All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’ faded out and the lights dimmed, the auditorium went totally dark and all eyes focused on Panti Bliss entering through the haze and lights, resplendent in an emerald silk bodycon dress, Swarovski heels and trademark blond curls.
She launched swiftly into hilarious machinegun patter with the audience (this is one drag queen right at the top of her game) before relating to us the details of, in sharp and witty anecdotal style, ‘Pantigate’.
Like some medium, I scrawled on my pad before giving up, it was pitch black, I couldn’t see a thing that I was writing. Almost illegibly, I’d managed to jot down: ‘fishing village’, ‘mining town’, ‘Rupert Everett’, ‘The Iona Institute’, ‘defamation’, ‘the gays would have fucking killed me’ and ‘I am Panti’.
Funnily, these notes sum up the show’s content for me. Slightly surreal off the cuff stand-up one-liners; deliciously indulgent celebrity anecdotes; and one woman’s unsolicited battle against a nation’s moral bastion and the realization she was now, suddenly, the unexpected voice of the entire gay population.
I don’t need to relate the details of Pantigate, watch the now legendary YouTube video of her speech at the Abbey Theatre and go see the show, Panti will tell you exactly what happened.
The point is Panti’s recent story is extraordinary and for someone who singularly challenged a nation’s ingrained homophobia and went onto deliver a speech which touched people across the globe, it’s a one told with self-effacing wit, assurity and the familiarity of a good friend.
She ironically snaps that she’s “a national fucking treasure”. We know that she means: “I’m told I’m something special, but I’m really just like you.”
“Confession is never far away, though, and underpinning the jokes is a personal truth. It’s clear to see why, as annoying as she tells us it is, people look to her for leadership and assurance.”
We hang on to her every word. We know that beneath the convivial tone it’s an historic story. The strong Irish contingent appreciates her national significance and the queers in the crowd appreciate her cultural status. Panti admits that the whole experience of being thrust into the media’s spotlight was truly horrifying at times, yet she exudes the confidence of one whose integrity won round a once part-hostile populous.
A side-step into a story about meeting Madonna at a funeral leads us into lighter territory and we go into more familiar club material about Brazilians, cruising sites and tranny-chasers with cheeky jibes at audience members, all of which in the hands of lesser performers could come across as crass and ill-considered, but delivered with Panti’s virtuosic talent come across as affectionate teasing, finished off with a “but you know it’s true” flick of the hair.
Confession is never far away, though, and underpinning the jokes is a personal truth. It’s clear to see why, as annoying as she tells us it is, people look to her for leadership and assurance.
This is a bold show of truly accomplished spoken word, which I absolutely loved. We laughed out loud, listened attentively, relished in the mischief, adored the fashion (of course) and learnt a lot about the man behind the very feminine star.
For such a personal show it was refreshing that not once did she veer towards sentiment and the tear in the eye from her final story was heartfelt, empowering and well earned. That red biro scrawl in my receipt book reads like the familiar mark of solidarity on social media for those who fight our cultural wars. ‘I am Panti’.
• Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, W1D 3NE. Runs to 2nd May.