Tuck takes us on a journey of sequins and glitter that eventually blur through tears. It’s fierce and fabulous and goes out fighting. Like any good Queen. But there’s a real core of grief running through it. It’s a core of grief in some respects that Queer people know all too well. But it’s also a universal grief, that longing for connection and all too often missing it. And there’s a valuable lesson in it from writer Alun Saunders about not missing that connection.
Tuck takes place in a Cardiff Drag bar. It’s Cardiff through and through, and that’s a joy. But it’s also universal. We meet four Queens; older duo Patsy Thatcher (Stifyn Parri) and Marta Titful (Iestyn Arwel) and two younger Queens Medusa Massid (Lewis Brown) and Lola Bipolar (Gareth Evans).Two young, wide eyed and naïve, with a Katy Perry song at the ready. And two old Queens, a duo, who know all the standards, and so had you if you want to work in this bar.
The premise is simple enough, we watch the Queens on stage and backstage, and occasionally elsewhere. Staging it in Ffresh Bar is a brilliant asset. It’s part shiny cabaret, part copper trees, part bar that doesn’t know what it is. And it works. They surround us, on stage, in their dressing rooms, and at home. We get snippets of their lives, their relationships. Who they are, were and want to be- because isn’t that what Drag is about?
There is a really nice dynamic between the younger Queens, raised on Drag Race and Instagram, and still with a lot to learn about the culture they’re trying to be a part of. Of course there’s also an argument for them bringing new ideas, new ways of doing Drag to the established ways. And that’s a clever device. These young Queens might need a lesson or two in what’s gone before, might need to appreciate their history. But also, they’re making their own, moving Drag and Queer culture forward and that’s important too. Of course, they need to make their act ‘not shit’ first. And there’s nothing funnier than a Queen getting it spectrally wrong too. Their routines are hilarious. But as characters they also remind us that life isn’t so easy for the younger generation either. In Drag or out of it.
Meanwhile the older duo, with the world weariness of girls who have seen it all before. And the love and affection of a well-worn marriage. They are old school Queens in every sense. They are the generation that was battling it out and have no patience for, well Katy Perry routines for one. But there’s a lovely dynamic, in all the scolding, the eye rolling and yes, cutting wit- there’s a sense of bringing up the next generation. Of yes, the family you choose in Queer life so often.
And that choosing a family forms the heart of Saunders piece. More importantly the importance of finding a family you can confide in, trust, and rely on. But also, in looking out for that family. When Patsy loses her life to suicide it resonates across the group. Most of all with her long term partner in Drag Martha- or Steve. There are so many touching moments in their relationship, from their first meeting- the day he goes for a HIV test, to their weekly B&Q outings. They’re family and in losing her Steve grieves as he would for anyone, but also blames himself. We see Patsy unravel something her Drag family missed, because she didn’t think she could reach out and talk. And as much as it’s not an ‘issues’ play, that’s the issue at the heart of it. And the message.
Tuck it is easy to forget is also a bilingual play. Simply because it is so effortlessly so. No surtitles are used, instead the other characters interject asking for clarification at key points. Or elsewhere relies on an audience being able to interpret what happens, through performance, inflection or frankly just common sense. The characters behave as true bilingual people do, flitting from one language to the other (a third if we include Drag here). There’s no moments of ‘And this is a Welsh Scene Now’ which is to the piece’s credit. This also feels far more inclusive- it’s natural, understandable, and realistic. It is incidental Welsh in that the piece can be enjoyed with no knowledge of the language. But it is far from incidental in that it shows Welsh language and bilingual theatre what can be achieved with a real ear to the inclusive- but also without compromising the use of the language.
And language is the key of what Saunders is dealing with. The language of how we communicate. Both with the wider world in terms of who we are. And with each other about how we are. It can be a hard life out there, especially for those a little bit ‘different’ and learning to communicate is a harder lesson still. Tuck asks that question of the Queens and the audience ‘what if we just talked a bit more?’ and it’s an important one. What’s also important about Tuck is that it comes from those Queens. That those are voices telling this story. For humour, yes, for sheer entertainment because it is that. But also to hear from them, hear those stories.
Tuck is grounded in Drag culture. This isn’t just a quick reference gathered from a couple of seasons of Drag Race (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but Alun Saunders has created a work utterly immersed in that world. Having learned the art of Drag himself, first as research but then carried on through sheer love of it Saunders knows the craft and the culture. This is important, because not only is Drag an important cultural element of Queer community, history and culture, but it is used to significant effect in Saunders writing. Every line, every interaction fully understands that world and as a result none of it is artificial (well apart from the nails, the wigs, the eyelashes). It’s not just about accuracy of research, but it’s about passion and dedication to telling these stories from a place of truth and authenticity. Because anyone can tell a nice story with a Drag Queen, but Tuck is more than that.
Tuck is an unapologetic hymn to Queer culture and the importance of this is not to be underestimated. Drag is an integral part of the history, culture and community of Queer people. To make a work that celebrates that, embraces it and presents it without concessions to heteronormative culture is in itself a powerful thing. And a beautiful thing. It is so important, so very important for Queer people to tell their stories, put their culture on stage in their own words, and own it. And that as much as anything else is a vital thing that Tuck has done.
But also, talk to each other. Find the people you can trust. Because it’s not worth losing something quite so fabulous. Ever.
At WMC until 3rd November tickets
MARED SWAIN & JESS WILLIAMS
Set & Costume Designer
Stifyn Parri- Patsy Thatcher/Patrick
Gareth Evans- Lola Bipolar/Teifion
Lewis Brown- Medusa Massid/Antoine
Iestyn Arwel- Martha Titful/Steve