That Girl vs The World ★★★★★

That Girl vs The World is the real-life story of culture war around a drag story-time in South London – told from an inside perspective

Once upon a time (the summer of 2023 to be precise) – in a land far away (well, Honor Oak Park) – the act of reading stories to children erupted into violence on the streets of South London.

For five months, Drag Queen and author, That Girl, had been hosting an hour of family storytelling once a month without a whiff of controversy. Then a far right group began to whip up a storm first on social media, then turning up in person outside the venue to make intimidating protests. That Girl began receiving death threats, the venue itself received a bomb threat – all in the name of “safeguarding children”. Violence erupted in June of 2023 when the right-wing extremist Turning Point UK group were met with a much larger groundswell of counter-protest from the local community. With a media storm raging, That Girl found herself in one spotlight that she never sought. That Girl vs The World tells that story from the eye of the storm. 

From the off, it is clear that this show is no typical pub theatre show. From a video projected across the whole wall of Bridge House Theatre, That Girl looms amidst clouds and lightning, warning of a storm that’s about to rage and “woe betide the men who put me there”. Enter George Lester (the human canvas onto which That Girl will be painted) to perform a thrilling, frenetic lip-sync kaleidoscope of pop culture that switches from Adele’s Hello to Rose’s Turn from the musical Gypsy, from Emma Bunton’s Maybe to Gaga’s manifesto of Mother Monster over the timeless Bernard Herrmann strings from Vertigo and onto her Monster’s Ball Brave speech. It’s a dizzying start but also a something of a preview of what’s to come. 

The set is the backstage sanctuary, with mirrors, makeup and fairy lights, where George will transform into That Girl throughout the first half of the show. As well as the physical set, the dressing room is also video projected onto the wall. In the gilt-framed mirror of the video projection appears the show’s other ‘presence’, Intrudy: a drag personification of George’s inner voice and a soi-disant “theatrical convention”. Think of her as lippy Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder. George and Intrudy chat, bicker and exchange hilarious lines with such speed that you forget that it’s one live performer interacting with a pre-recorded video. Their timing is something to marvel!

Rather than plunging into the storm centring on the story hour, the show wisely first asks and answers the question: who’s That Girl? An origin story takes you on a journey exploring how George Lester got into drag, the icons that shaped his drag, his love of reading and indeed his own foray into writing. While Intrudy may impatiently might want to cut to the chase, George persists in putting the “building blocks” of the narrative in place through the medium of lip-sync, some spectacular live singing (he has a Masters degree in musical theatre) and dance. There is something endearing about George’s natural vulnerability and his willingness to share it with an audience. It sets up a reminder that there is a real person underneath the make-up before we meet That Girl.

The second act begins with a turbo-charged performance of Everything’s Coming Up Roses by That Girl who is a vision in red. It’s like a statement of intent as the show plunges into the real-life media storm.

Meticulously, she demolishes the lies that were deliberately circulated in order to whip up hate towards her and the storytelling event. There is a real dignity, humour and honesty in retelling what happened.  A line “Didn’t want to get my face smashed in for reading stories to kids” brings home the madness of the situation. When That Girl reveals the type of books that were part of her event – Llama Glamarama, the story of a llama who wanted to dance – it is clear how wholesome the family storytelling events were. 

Comparisons to men playing Shakespearean female characters (complete with Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech accompanied by Bad Romance played as a madrigal, naturally), the tradition of pantomime dames and men reading CBeebies Bedtime Stories, are used forensically to expose the prejudice at the core of those protesting the drag story hour.

What impresses about the show is that it could easily, and justifiably, be an angry rant. Instead it’s a thoroughly entertaining evening that will make you laugh, clap and think in equal measure. Adeptly directed by Luke Adamson, the technical ambition of this extravaganza befits a sell-out Madison Square Garden rather a humble South London pub theatre. The effort and skill that has gone into realising the show surely necessitates a life beyond its current run in Penge.

Never allowing herself to become a martyr or a victim, That Girl’s steady, persistent advocation is empowering. In a week where the Prime Minister glibly made a transphobic “joke” in the presence of the mother of a murdered trans girl, the story delivered here of compassion, inclusivity and optimism could not be more timely.

That Girl vs The World is joyous celebration of the power of community to overcome the dark forces of fascism. A nobody tells it like That Girl! 

A storytelling star is born ★★★★★

That Girl vs The World tickets

That Girl vs The World runs at Bridge House Theatre, Penge until 16 February

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