How drag cabaret got me talking sense on Brexit
Britain is a nation divided. It’s official. Ever since the referendum we have become polarised into those who want to leave and those who want to remain, and nothing in between. Never will that be more apparent than around the dinner table this Christmas. But is that really true? Are we really a nation that will be stuck, looking down into a plate of brussels sprouts, unable to look family members in the eye for fear the B-word will spring forth from our mouths?
I ended my Edinburgh show this year by saying: “We should be marching off to a bright new future, but we have never been more divided.” Then, as the audience left, I took photos with them; older, younger, men, women, non-binary. “Innies” and “Outies”. “Oh I voted leave, she voted remain.”
Cut to a week or so ago and I’m chatting to my doctor about some “intimate” tests. He asks what show I had been doing and I say a show about Brexit. I give a few familiar remain arguments and he replies: “But I guess it is about time we addressed the amount of people coming into the country.” Erm, excuse me, NHS sexual health clinic doctor. You voted leave? Preconceptions about the typical leave voter immediately dispelled – though it feels a bit odd diverting off into a discussion about Brexit when I had a more immediate situation to deal with. But I’m guessing he probably has a much better idea of how a central London health service would be stretched so why get into a heated debate on immigration, which in truth I don’t know that much about.
I myself am a lot “in” but not necessarily entirely, and think that our relationship with Europe was in need of some very serious consideration. I also don’t actually know if my doctor voted leave. I assumed he’d be remain and then he just mentioned immigration and so I assumed leave. But he might just be a bit leave, simply processing one part of a complicated situation like everyone else.
My business partner is addicted to talking about it. We never really discuss politics; but it’s almost with excitement that we launch into discussions over “what ifs” and “how our parents voted differently to us”. In fact, most people are willing to chat about it – not reluctantly or with any shame, but with a certain level of enthusiasm and frustration in equal measure.
I worked in sales briefly and we were advised never to ask a closed question. But with regards to Brexit, “Are you leave or remain?” usually prompts fairly lengthy justification emphatically for one or the other, or general musings about lack of information, or the shit pile we seem to find ourselves in, or general ramblings about what other people think. I find if I just shut up and let other people do the talking, I learn about this person. I learn a bit more about the reasons why, and I learn that we are not as polarised as the media might make us think. The World Cup couldn’t do it. A royal wedding couldn’t do it. Certainly not one that didn’t give us a public holiday. But Brexit in its very divisiveness has actually united the nation. We all have an opinion on Brexit. It affects us all and we have all played a part.
It’s this collectiveness that influenced my approach to creating my All Star Brexit Cabaret. A musical about Brexit was a funny PR-grabbing idea for my Un-Royal Variety in the late summer of 2016, but it quickly provided a source rich in material for myself and Richard Thomas (the composer of Jerry Springer: The Opera) to write about. What was supposed to be a fiveminute musical skit became a half-hour segment with about 13 musical numbers. A show not about facts or figures but about how we treated each other, the names we called each other, the discussions that we were having – heated or otherwise – our prejudices and preconceptions. And of course the politicians who have become caricature pantomime villains.
My dad is very much a proud leave voter so I was determined that the show shouldn’t be just another vehicle for the remain point of view that recycles familiar arguments but doesn’t address the way many remainers labelled all leavers racist or stupid. I wanted space for the other side of the debate. It’s hard to allow the opposition to have a platform, especially when some of the issues seem to grate deeply with what we hold so dear. But in order to write the show I’ve had to find a way to empathise with both sides of the argument.
Of course I wish the referendum hadn’t happened, but it has and there is no turning back the clock. Whatever the outcome, which will definitely not please everyone, we will as a nation have to find a way to move forwards. And it won’t be the politicians who will be healing any wounds. It’s widely accepted now that an “in or out” question was hugely inadequate for such a huge issue and the current deal on the table satisfies no one. Perhaps that’s one thing everyone can agree on this festive season?
• Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret is at the London Coliseum on 17 December
‘It’s this collectiveness that influenced my approach to creating my All Star Brexit Cabaret.’Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety Theresa May Choir.
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