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THEATRE REVIEW: Miss Meena & The Masala Queens

‘Sequins with added sensitivity’

Pic: Momtaz Begum-Hossain

I’ve often been mistaken for a Drag Queen. I wear a lot of sparkles and I love strong eyeshadow. Make your own mind up…

Proud to look like a Drag Queen

But being mistaken for a woman, dressed as a man, dressed as a woman has never bothered me. I’d far rather be associated with someone who’s bold, individual and fashionable, than a clone. I have an affinity with people whose dress code goes against society norms. Sure a lot of people dress up flamboyantly these days, though increasingly they do so in a ‘manufactured pop’ kind of way in order to get Instagram likes. Such is the way of the world.

But when it comes to changing your gender through what you wear, it’s not a passing phase, trend or temporary measure: it’s a way of life, an entire attitude and approach to individuality. And it’s this theme that Rifco Arts new production Miss Meena and The Malasa Queens focuses on.

Surprisingly more sensitive then it is showbiz, #MasalaQueens is more of a traditional play than it is a dazzling stage show, and that in itself breaks stereotypes about what a production about Drag Queens would be like.

The story unfolds with a disheveled Miss Meena (Raj Ghatak) drinking her worries away inside a dilapidated club, a slightly more sombre mood than I was hoping for. I won’t lie. I wanted spangliness from the start but #MasalaQueens is not an all-singing, all dancing musical. Instead, it’s an emotional tale centering on the family struggles faced by transgender men: that’s what gives its Asian flavour and also what makes it have such a universal appeal.

The tenderness of the story is balanced out with the warmth and positive vibes that come with the arrival of Pinky (Vedi Roy) and Preetho (Harvey Dhadda) whose charming banter and passion for dancing makes the show an utter joy to watch. Highlights include their Carmen Miranda style headdresses worn during their version of Hawa Hawaii and when they’re contemplating their stage names - ‘Manduri Dixit’ and ‘Aishwarya Bhai’? Total script gold.

The play features a highly commendable all-male cast. The dynamics between all the characters is faultless. Raj’s Miss Meena is the right blend of strong, sensible and sexy while Munni (Jamie Zubairi) never strays from maintaining her self-centred image. The moment newcomer Shaan (Nicholas Prasad) makes her stage debut is utterly captivating and not just because of the full on blingtastic sequins in her dress, it’s her build. To see this young lad who’s incredibly muscular, take on this new persona of a fit and feisty woman is incredibly liberating. Similarly its comforting to watch Pinky and Preetho in their green room getting changed; it’s a reminder that you can be whoever you want to be, whenever you want to be.

For the large part #MasalaQueens is formulaic. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in the chain of events, and part of me wishes this wasn’t the case. Rifco have a track record of producing creative work that pushes boundaries beyond expectations and I wondered if they thought that focusing on the British Asian LGBTQ community was already enough without the story being too different, but the scenarios of a gay teenager leaving home, a gay man whose marriage falls apart and a touch of bribery just felt a bit too safe. Similarly some aspects of the story didn’t wash with me; I felt Councillor Ranjeet’s resistance to close down Miss Meena’s was unexplained and I also wasn’t overly convinced by the way Shaan ended up being part of Miss Meena’s clan, it was just a bit too easy.

What did fascinate me though was seeing the variation between types of drag queen club. I didn’t know this existed but when it was explained it made perfect sense, and I liked the way Pinky and Preetho were disgusted by the vibe at ‘Munni’s’ but felt totally at home at ‘Miss Meena’s.’ (Yes you’ll have to watch it to see what I’m talking about!)

Despite this being a play where family is the focus, I liked that family is never romanticised. Miss Meena reminisces about a happy childhood but doesn’t let this cloud the reality that she also experienced major conflicts with her parents and although family love is unconditional, you can’t pretend the negativities didn’t happen.

The most poignant moment in the play is when Miss Meena recounts the ultimatum her father gave her. It’s sad and harrowing but a reminder that life doesn’t always have a conventional happy ending and that’s ok…in the case of #MalasaQueens however it does, and there’s a fun and fabulous musical ending to look forward to, which is utterly glamorous from start to finish hooray!

Miss Meena & The Masala Queens by Rifco and Watford Palace Theatre is touring until 17th June 2017.

Momtaz Begum-Hossain

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