Drag-Opticon at the Panopticon

The oldest surviving music hall on the planet, entered down a wee inconspicuous lane, just off the Trongate in Glasgow city centre. First opened in the 1850’s, the Panopticon (then called the Britannia Music Hall) was an escape for the industrial workers of the booming Glasgow mills and forges. The Glasgow crowd was renowned for their heckling, which sometimes included ship building rivets being flung at the performers.

The performers ranged from comedy acts, singers and of course dancing girls. One of the most famous acts that is still celebrated today was none other than a young Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame. The Panopticon was also one of the first music halls to get wired into the electricity grid. This meant that the hall could also show movies. Although in the end, the rise of the cinema is what sealed the Panopticon’s fate. Unable to compete with the growing number of Picture Houses in the city, the building was sold in 1938. 

The new owners rearranged the layout of the building, converting the front entrance and box office into a shop and sealing up the balconies and upper auditorium. Effectively preserving them to be found in 1997.

Fast forward to today and the music hall has so much charm, it is the perfect place to host a drag show. A little bit quirky, a little bit weird, awkward and battered, but done up and making an effort, charming and with a specific aroma. The theatre is as fabulous as any drag queen I’ve seen.

And Drag-Opticion did not disappoint. These were queens I had never seen before. Usually when you go to a drag show, you will be familiar with who is performing, you know the routine they will do and their style of drag. I went into this show totally unaware. I was so excited to see the building I didn’t do my usual internet searching for the performers. I was pleasantly surprised.

I have seen some of the best drag performers on the planet and some of the worst. The amazing thing about drag though is how varied it is. Some folk who aren’t into it presume it is just some guys dressing up as women and lip syncing, it is not. It is an art. High artistry is required to conceptualise, produce and perform several acts on stage, all while in stiletto heels.

And having Drag-Opticon at the Panopticon couldn’t have been a better fit. A venue as beaten as the queen’s contours, with just as many highlights. The shabby sheek of the building just emphasised the fabulousness of the queens. Dark and gloomy corners were brightened with fairy lights and rainbow flags, original features of the music hall peaked through as high fashion garments swirled on stage with performers.

The performers were a range of clearly young queens and experienced seasoned professionals. The compère was a Drag Queen called Alana Duvey, she was as expected, fabulous and funny. Charming and chatty. She made the audience feel at ease, went with the flow and kept the camp flowing.

There was fabulous high fashion from Dharma Geddon and an especially “wow that’s amazing and like nothing I’ve seen before” second act. There was a lot of comedy, it is a drag show after all, CJ Banks delivered humour on so many levels and made me cry tears of laughter. Soofae SooFierce was beautiful and quirky. Lucy Stewpid was a refreshing new take on drag with a big Anime flavour. Clare S. Fully brought a clear Sasha Velour flavour. And I would be amiss to not mention the ever present stage hand, Pebbles. 

The outfits were fabulous, there were some who needed a little bit more attention to detail, but I’m sure they will learn with experience. The make up was varied and each look was appropriate for their wardrobe changes. I was particularly impressed with Dharma Geddon’s fencing outfit. I want, nae need, her brown leather shoulder cuff and collar.

Overall the whole show was superb, we have already purchased our tickets for the next show. Downsides include accessibility, however this is to be expected in any historical building. There are three short flights of stairs, there are handrails and it isn’t too steep. There is also no accessible toilet and the auditorium can get a bit chilly. But the show is worth it. The Friends of the Panopticon are currently trying to raise money to install some central heating, please go visit the website to find out more…

Drag-Opticion is a clearly a grassroots show, produced and performed by the people who love the art of drag. It was heartfelt and engaging, set in a majestic building steeped in history of performance in the city. There were some technical sound issues, but I feel it was minor. Nothing detracted from the fact you felt you were in a secret club, a speak-easy vibe with a small bar and few patrons. 

This for me was an amazing show, I laughed, I awed and was most definitely entertained. I would recommend this show to anyone, but due to lack of access to the old building I can only give it a 4/5* review. This does not reflect the quality of performance.

by Debra Torrance

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