Prom Kween continues at The Vaults Theatre, London until 19 February.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Every Fringe festival has its shambolic musicals – those shows where the zero budget aesthetic is fully embraced, which like to project an air of being put together at the very last minute and every rough edge is displayed with pride. For this year’s Vaults Festival, Prom Kween fills that role. But among the shambolic shenanigans, a real heart is beating.
Rebecca Humphries and Joanna Cichonska’s new musical is set in a 2016-era American high school, where the intense political infighting is not about who will come to govern the country but who will win the crowns of Prom King and Queen.
Naturally, there is a classic mean girl who assumes the title of Queen is hers for the taking, and it is widely assumed that she and her jock boyfriend will win the popular vote – but the rejected and dejected of the school have other ideas.
So far, so familiar – and indeed, the play’s shameless ripping off of storylines from many a teen movie is not only acknowledged but claimed with a delighted grin. What really makes Prom Kween a little different is that the underdog for prom queen is called Matthew, a student who identifies as gender non-binary – and is a role shared among four of the cast
Swapping the role allows both for Matthew’s sense of gender fluidity to be emphasised, and also for the character to interact with all the others while keeping the cast size down.
The majority of their personality, though, emerges from Sam Swann’s portrayal, who gives Matthew an air of vulnerable defiance that then carries across to the other three cast members – Rebecca Humphries, Sean Rigby and Lucy Pearman – who assume the role.
The low-tech aspects of the musical are embraced wholeheartedly, from the high school jock (Swann again) being portrayed by a football helmet that is too small to fit, and a series of celebrity impressions that comprise little more than a badly fitting wig – seeing lesbian icon Ellen DeGeneres portrayed as a deep-voiced, portly, bearded man has its own bizarre sense of hilarity.
Leading the show as both narrator and high school principal, though, is another impression – Sule Rimi playing a character that claims to be drag superstar RuPaul Charles.
Despite having the body shape and height, though, Rimi suffers from a costume which, unlike the other impressions, actively suffers from its shoddiness.
It is hard to accept an impression of a drag character who has made her name through impeccable hair, make-up and clothing to be portrayed by a man in a ratty wig placed so indelicately that his real hair is showing.
What must have been a stylistic choice actively distracts from Rimi’s role as narrator, and one hopes that should Prom Kween progress from this work-in-progress staging the role could be filled by a genuinely glamorous professional drag artist.
Humphries and Cichonska’s songs will not win any awards for originality – there’s a brightness and breeziness that is so familiar, and deliberately so here. What they do is to reiterate the musical’s grounding in a genre that has a long, long history – so that its occasional breaks away from the traditional storyline resolutions feel refreshing even as they are clearly signalled.
If Prom Kween were only a fun pastiche, it would be an amusing hour that would neither get, nor deserve, much life beyond the current festival. But what gives the musical that little extra edge is its foundation in a real life story from 2016, when non-binary Matthew Crisson was elected Prom Queen by the students of the LaGuardia School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts.
The real story is clumsily handled as the cast read from cards, explaining how some online negativity was counteracted by welcoming statements led by the school’s elected prom king.
It is already jarring that a real life story is played out as an anarchic fourth wall-breaking hour of silliness, but to have that genuine tale so mishandled becomes a genuine shame.
Still, there is enough vivacity, humour and good spirit within the rest of Prom Kween that this work-in-progress musical may well have a future life in which such slight missteps can be corrected. I, for one, hope that I will be there to see it.