I have wanted to see The Lady Boys of Bangkok for years. I remember seeing posters for it back home (near Burnley) when I was a child and being instantly inthralled. I was too young to understand the term “lady boy” and was shocked when an ignorant teaching assistant (who recently unfriended me on Facebook for criticising Christian conservatism in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned) told me that the women in the show were in fact “men”.
As I got older, I was surprised that a show as flamboyant and progressive (transgressive, even) as this played in a place like Burnley (small town, small minds, you know)? – but it’s actually coming back to Burnley later this year, albeit for one night only.
It is currently playing at the show’s own transportable venue, the Sabai Pavilion – a most marvellous marquee – outside the Great Hall of the Trafford Centre.
The Show: Act 1
We arrived to the show a little late (I was there half an hour early, but my unpunctual friend was 40 minutes fashionably late – a new record), so we missed the beginning. The titular Lady Boys were just finishing off a routine in black and gold traditional Thai dress. It seemed to be a more sophisticated routine, in contrast to some of the more slapstick scenes. I had always thought The Lady Boys of Bangkok to be more elegant than most drag shows, but the show is both classy and camp – to my delight!
Sure enough, the next routine was more your average drag: a Spice Girls medley! Each Spice Girl was portrayed by a different Lady Boy – and it was obvious who was who. The Spice Girls have never been quite so spicy!
The tributes to queer icons continued, with the curtain rising to reveal Elton John sat at his piano!
He was soon joined by Dua Lipa, and whilst this scene was not quite as entertaining as the last, I loved the costumes – especially Dua’s dressing gown/leotard concoction!
The next two scenes were my personal favourites.
The first was similar to the opening scene, in that the Lady Boys wore traditional Thai dress (performance dress anyway), with the main dancer wearing a Medusa-esque headpiece. Their green and gold costumes were especially regal.
They danced to Narong Sinsawasdi’s ‘Welcome to Thailand’ – and we felt very welcome, indeed.
Then, Shakira took to the stage. Yes, Shakira, Shakira – except not that song. I immediately recognised ‘Whenever Wherever’, even though the first few notes are pretty tame (I’m a true fan). The main dancer wore a sparkling red bellydancing outfit, whilst her backing dancers wore red leotards with single legs.
It was actually a tribute to her Super Bowl performance, but I did not realise this until JLo took to the stage!
Yes, there was also a Lady Boy embodying Jennifer Lopez, wearing a costume similar to the leather jumpsuit she wore at Super Bowl. She was accompanied by the show’s four male dancers as she lip synced ‘Jenny from the Block’. She then left the stage as the guys danced to ‘On the Floor’, before returning in a glittery leotard – complete with pieces of what looked like shattered glass – much like her second Super Bowl outfit.
The set even included a tribute to the empowering, controversial ‘Let’s Get Loud’/’Born in the USA’ portion of the performance – complete with an American flag that “JLo” threw into the audience, only for it to be caught by a member of the crew (who caught quite a few items over the course of the show).
I knew what was coming next: Shakira would be returning. Sure enough, “Shakira” joined “JLo” as the two sang ‘Waka Waka’, much like the original performance. The show even used an actual audio recording from the Super Bowl performance. It was an incredible recreation of the most-watched Super Bowl performance of all time.
The only let-down: the costumes were on point, but they did not wear recreations of the silver and gold costumes that JLo and Shakira (respectively) wore for the joint bit of the performance. That only costs the show 0.00000001% of a point, though.
This was followed by a performance from one of the Lady Boys who is actually male – in drag. This queen seemed to be the leader of the pack – a “mother” of the house, perhaps.
Dressed as Marilyn Monroe, she lip synced to the beautiful, touching ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ by Charlene. I’ve recently really gotten into Mary McGregor’s cover, so it was a nice surprise to see the song included in the show.
Beautiful, but slow, the scene was, sure enough, upgraded: the queen was joined by Lady Boys in dresses that embodied paintbrushes, before the curtain opened to reveal more paintbrushes and three of the male dancers in pink crop tops and tiny black shorts. What were they lip syncing? ‘Colour My World’ from Priscilla Queen of the Desert – of course!
The main Lady Boy offered a really humorous performance when she lip synced to Connie Vannett’s ‘The Pussycat Song’.
The first act ended with a recreation of ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ from Hairspray. The performance used the same choreography, and even recreations of the costumes, seen in the film. The head Lady Boy played Edna, of course, throwing her skirt into the audience. I’m pretty sure it hit an audience member!
The Show: Act 2
The second act opened with a fabulous showgirl number, with the girls dancing to Pitbull’s ‘Give Me Everything’ (featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack and Nayer).
The head Lady Boy delivered another one of the funniest performances of the show. Two Lady Boys dragged a (super hot, long-haired) male audience member onstage and put a blindfold on him, before their “Mother” came out and gave him a lap dance.
She had danced sexually with another man earlier on in the show – I think he might have even been a barman – and even ended up on top of him. He looked incredibly uncomfortable and even tried to push her away, but she persisted. This raised the question of consent. I do wonder, however, if this was part of the script: if the man was, indeed, part of the team, he might have been told to act this way.
The second act also included a tribute to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’, with the dancers all dressed in neon – “Nicki” even wore a neon green wig. We could hardly see the dancers’ faces – just the neon clothing and accessories (and wig!). It was a visual feast.
Another scene saw three of the Lady Boys dressed in modern Medieval-style clothing, complete with corsets – and, for some reason, feather dusters. I think it was a sexy maid thing.
I particularly enjoyed the Vengboys tribute – ‘We Like to Party! (The Vengabus)’. Lady Boys meet Vengaboys – should we say, the Vengaboys of Bangkok?
The club-like atmosphere continued, with the Lady Boys leading an audience-participatory conga to Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield’s ‘(Is This the Way to) Amarillo’.
Then, the main Lady Boy was back onstage for a tribute to Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’. She ripped the towels off her head and body to reveal a Kris Jenner-like wig and a sparkly, purple, short dress. She succeeded in turning that Thursday night into a Saturday.
The disco medley was a lot of fun. The Lady Boys were transformed into disco divas, complete with afros (perhaps a little problematic, but we move).
The medley began with ‘One Night Only (Disco version)’ from the film version of ‘Dreamgirls’ – it might have been a good idea to begin with the soul version and blend it into the disco version, as happens in the stage musical version – before going on to a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ and eventually arriving at Destiny’s Child ‘Survivor’.
The backing dancers all ripped off long, golden dresses to reveal black bras and tasseled skirts, before the Beyoncé of the group ripped off her dress, revealing a silver harness and burlesque-like stickers on her nipples – before ripping off her amazing afro wig and letting her luscious locks run free.
The head Lady Boy was then back for a tribute to Tina Turner, lip syncing ‘The Best’.
A highlight of the night came in a recreation of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. The curtain lifted to reveal almost the entire cast – a take on the iconic opening scene of the music video – all covered in lights, lit in a dark blue light that obscured their features.
Gaga’s walk and dance to the bridge was especially excellent.
The night would not have been complete with a dance cover to the Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’ (with the main Lady Boy, of course, playing one of the Weather Girls) and a return of Tina for ‘Proud Mary’ – which weirdly turned into Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’!
There were even more scenes than this; I’ve just spoken about my personal highlights. It was a real riot and an epic extravaganza that celebrated both Thai and queer culture – and gave tribute to queer icons along the way. There were no expenses spared, with a superb set, crazy costumes and perfect props.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok took us all over the world – even to Spain for a flamenco routine!
Oh, and one of them even got married to an unsuspecting male audience member.
I knew the show would be lots of fun, but I was surprised by just how extravagant it was.
The Elephant in the Room
The most surprising thing about the show, however, was nothing to do with the show, itself, but, rather, its audience: old, straight and White. It was not like your typical cabaret, where the audience is noticeably queer – and there’s always a few people of colour.
Of course, it’s great to see straight people (especially men) being open enough to go and see a cabaret starring transgender women, drag queens and gay men; I’m just not used to it. There are always lots of straight men at Kunst Kabaret at Albert’s Schloss, but they just accidentally walked into a cabaret night, and their faces scream discomfort – if not even disgust.
Here, though, scores of straight men come to bear witness to a queer extravaganza.
Perhaps the reason this show attracts more straight audiences is because it is long-running and iconic – indeed, it is the largest and longest-running cabaret in the UK, following a 20+ year stint at the Edinburgh Festival – even straight people know about it!
One does wonder, however, if such audience members are there to celebrate the beauty and talent of the Lady Boys, or if there’s more to it. The sexualisation and fetishisation of East Asian women is nothing new, and it’s well-documented that lots of straight men enjoy the company of kathoey (transgender women) when in Thailand. This is very cynical, but I cannot help but wonder why this cabaret attracts straight men whilst others don’t.
Does the show deliberately market itself to straight people? The term “Lady Boy” is dated and offensive, but older straight people are less likely to take issue with it (along with a long list of inappropriate words).
That said, it does seem a little culturally colonial to apply Western standards/values to other countries. Perhaps the term is not considered offensive in Thailand (and, in fact, embraced by trans women and drag queens) – much like “coloured” in South Africa. Then again, is it okay to just dismiss/justify something as “of its time” or place?
We must also not forget the power of reclamation. This show is, arguably, reclaiming the term “Lady Boys”. However, promo material refers to the titular Lady Boys as “men” and “male”. I was surprised by this because I always thought they were trans women, but now it transpired that they were, in fact, drag queens. Upon watching the show, however, I realised that most of the stars were, indeed, trans women – not just men dressed up as women. So, why does the promo material insist on reducing the stars to their biological sex?
The show, itself, never does this. In fact, it is a celebration of kathoey. It is sexy, stunning, stimulating, sophisticated – and, best of all, subversive. It does not demean or degrade its titular Lady Boys, but, rather, allows them to portray themselves as the gracious goddesses that they are.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok is at the Trafford Centre (outside the Great Hall) until 9th July, as part of its UK tour, which ends in early October.