Chances are you haven’t come across the Lady Boys of Bangkok in the arts pages of national newspapers. But the show was one of the big sellers at the Edinburgh Fringe, and has been for years. Back in May it was also a hit at the Brighton Festival Fringe, where it’s also a regular visitor. And those are just two stops on its nationwide tour that lasts until Christmas.
By chance, the Lady Boys were my introduction to Edinburgh. My colleague Clifford Bishop (whom I call Culture Boy), writing for the Independent on Sunday, had already been at the festival for a week, by which time he’d had enough of dance and physical theatre and needed a break. “I got tickets to the Lady Boys of Bangkok,” he said. “Want one?”
And so I found myself watching a troupe of “kathoeys” (male-to-female transsexuals/transvestites) lip-synching to hits from Bassey to Beyoncé and beyond. The Lady Boys were accompanied by Gent Boys who also got their own spots with such outré macho turns as Bat Out of Hell, Relight My Fire and YMCA. One number showed a Lady Boy turning into a Gent Boy; another featured a character who was half Lady, half Gent. One Lady Boy was certainly no lady, nor indeed gent, but rather a big bruiser in heavy slap who did a mean Tina Turner.
What surprised me most was not the show but the audience: overwhelmingly women. Mostly they were in big, intergenerational hen-party style gangs, and I pegged the few men as mostly husbands and boyfriends. But basically, the Lady Boys pull in the ladies. (And, I should add, the locals. Though not, I think, the lesbians).
I am neither lady nor local, and was struggling to understand the show’s X-factor. It’s not a drag act, nor is it panto. It’s quite karaoke, and has more than a touch of circus/freakshow (Exhibit A: the midget who humps a Lady Boy leg). So, what was its particularly feminine appeal?
You may have other answers, but here’s what I came up with. For women, it’s risqué, but not risky: they are almost completely outside this particular web of identification and objectification. The “women” on stage aren’t actual women, and so provide neither competition nor identification nor aspiration. The men on stage are “playing” men (and, I’m guessing, are mostly gay), so there’s no danger that the women’s gaze will be returned (Exhibit A: the YMCA number).
The gendered safety zones are made even clearer during the audience participation. Occasionally a Lady Boy would go into the audience to single out a man (Culture Boy got a smacker from Ms Turner); sometimes that man would be brought on stage to become an object of fun/innuendo/humiliation (made to take off his shirt and dance, for example). But when the women came up, it was in groups who joined in the singing (YMCA, again); they were invited to be one of the girls, in on the act.
As the show ended I turned to a grinning Culture Boy and said, “You’re very heterosexual – but not very straight” (he was well chuffed). Then I looked around at the exuberantly swaying women – and their somewhat cowed menfolk – cheering the outlandish spectacle of gender-bending impersonation and lipo-sucked lip-synchery and I thought no, it’s more than that … heterosexuality itself is not very straight.