Panti: High Heels in Low Places – Soho Theatre, London
Performer: Panti Bliss
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
A couple of years ago, Irish drag queen Panti Bliss was all but unknown outside Dublin. That all changed when, on an innocuous chat show on the country’s state broadcaster RTÉ, she suggested that some journalists and religious organisations that campaigned against equal rights for gay people were homophobic. Threats of legal action followed, in response to which RTÉ swiftly apologised and paid compensation to those claiming defamation.
The resulting furore kickstarted a debate in Ireland about homophobia which only accelerated when a speech by Panti went viral on YouTube. The overwhelmingly positive response propelled her to “national treasure” status – although the variation of that phrase that Panti prefers includes a rather more profane adjective. Like this stand-up show, her description of herself is coarse, freely punctuated by four-letter words, knowingly self-deprecating and inspiringly defiant. It’s a routine which draws on Panti’s recent experiences to tell a personal, political story in an uplifting, often hilarious manner.
Celebrities loom large in Panti’s routine, often cropping up throughout in similes that would be dismissed as cheap shots if they weren’t presented with such good-natured charm. The sly references lay the foundation for a tale of how she ended up meeting Madonna at a mutual friend’s funeral, with a tremendous segment that clearly pleases the predominantly gay audience and is full of wonderfully observed moments, but does feel slightly out of place with the tone of the rest of the routine.
Labels and pigeonholes are a regular target for Panti’s humour, starting with her rejection of those who describe her drag act as female impersonation. What she does is not impersonation, she says, but the portrayal of something other, a rebellion against the idea that women must at all times put themselves through the “uncomfortable and often painful” regimes of artificial beauty, while men never should. Tales of meeting men who are attracted to her when dressed as a woman but freak out when Panti dresses as his offstage persona of Rory O’Neill, wigless and in T-shirt and jeans, are as much sympathetic to both parties as they are filthily humorous.
Forthright about her own HIV positive status, Panti has seen massive shifts in life expectancy in the two decades since her diagnosis. There is still an uncomfortable edge to her jokes about HIV and Aids, but in a manner that never feels manipulative, trite or glib – more that no aspect of her own life is, or ever should be, devoid of humour.
And such attitudes explain why the eloquence Panti displayed in the YouTube video which has to date scored 720,000 views, and which inspired discussions in the Irish Parliament and around the world, is far from a one-off. An hour of superlative comedy and heartfelt, empowering passion proves that Panti Bliss is not, as she puts it, a “national f*****g treasure”.
She’s an international one.