A day after the passing of Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, I was coincidentally offered the chance to meet a lesser-known Queen at the Soho Theatre. This irony was not lost upon the eponymous Glamrou, whose creator managed to incorporate Britain’s mournful circumstances into their one-woman drag show.
As the alter-ego of Glamrou, non-binary actor and screenwriter Amrou Al-Khadi comes across as remarkably British; yet, of course, this performer’s Muslim identity and Iraqi roots immediately distinguish them from other queens. Glamrou slips between polarizing binaries – she is both a girl and a boy, British and Iraqi, queer and Muslim. Most startlingly, perhaps, she is both a suspected terrorist and, swathed in a body-con Union Jack, she is also an English queen. In role-playing each of these social constructs through the provocative and equally constructed persona of Glamrou, Amrou Al-Khadi illustrates the complexity and beauty of living in a state of playful contradiction.
What I loved about this show is how Al-Khadi works with the tropes of drag to emphasise certain contours of their story. Glamrou gleefully revels in being centre-stage whilst also couching in her story in heavily acerbic self-deprecation. Narcissism and self-loathing are textbook indicators of trauma; as Glamrou, Al-Khadi works with these behaviours to survive retelling their story onstage. If various aspects of Amrou’s cultural heritage exist in conflict with one another, drag is the perfect medium to play with – and indeed satirise – that conflict. Everything Glamrou says is ironic, horrifically self-aware and gloriously self-obsessed; ultimately, though, both drag (and more widely, the tonality we call ‘camp’) is light-hearted in its theatricality. This brings with it a political force: if Glamrou can make fun of the contradictory constituents of Amrou’s identity, she is able to acknowledge and even make space for a whole community of people like me who never quite fit in. She doesn’t even need fancy words or a university degree to get the audience to understand: quite simply, she just makes us laugh at the messy picture she paints.
As a brown drag-queen, indeed a Muslim queer with a British accent, Glamrou provides a much-needed intervention into the commercialized form of drag that has hit the mainstream. Unlike RuPau’s Drag Race which is devoid of the political transgression that characterised the original 90s New York drag scene, Glamrou reinvigorates her genre with radical boundary-pushing. She sings in Arabic whilst thrusting her pelvis; she accuses the largely white audience of both racism and Islamophobia. She metaphorically frames rejecting Islam as a teenager with breaking up with a first boyfriend and makes puns on ‘Allah’ in her versions of 2000s pop songs. I’m wondering whether my editors will publish these few written examples of what Glamrou sung and screamed onstage.
That’s not to say Glamrou’s show was all about shocking the audience for no reason or eliding the very serious kinds of marginalization that Amrou has experienced life-long.
Midway through the show, Glamrou recounts childhood attempts at performing whiteness at the expense of their Iraqi heritage. For example, at Eton college where Amrou went to school, a teenage Amrou escapes relentless bullying by lauding British culture and painting themself a survivor of the barbaric Middle East. Amrou’s rejection of Islam and at-times hatred of Allah (as performed through song) are gut-wrenching, perhaps all the more so for yours truly because it resonated. Glamrou’s rendition of such scenes are hilarious; but each of these anecdotes are uncomfortable and even painful. For me, the strength of Glamrou’s act lies in how she carefully balances the various emotional responses that her words conjure: with startling candour, Glamrou enacts her writer’s attempts at self-erasure, whilst with calculated irony, she detaches herself from trauma through comedy.
What Glamrou does onstage is important and necessary: firstly, because spotlights with true bravado those who don’t ever quite belong; and secondly, because she makes not-belonging okay. At the same time, Glamrou urges us to hold accountable those who gatekeep certain spaces: quite obviously, that includes Eton boys, but perhaps more surprisingly is the culpability of the majority-white queer community. And yet I caught members of the audience shaking their heads with bemused delight, rather than despair; and therein lies the strength of creating a queen like Glamrou to tell your story.
Directed by Seif Abdel Salam with Musical Direction from Porscha Present.
Image Credit: Harry Carr
Review by Sophia Sheera – Sophia is a writer interested in migration, cultural citizenship, displacement and queerness with a focus on Central Asia and Northern India. Sophia is inspired by talking to the people whose stories are sidetracked by sensationalist headlines, and as such aspires to share those counter-narratives through political journalism.
Amrou Al-Kadhi is a drag queen, actor, screenwriter and author. Their memoir, Life as a Unicorn: A Journey from Shame to Pride and Everything In Between, was published by Harper Collins in the UK and the US and won the Polari First Book Prize and the Somerset Maugham award – it has received praise from Ian McKellen, Russell T Davies, Joanna Lumley, Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, and many others. It is also being adapted into a television show by Universal Studios and The Forge Entertainment – more info on this in due course.
As a screenwriter, Amrou co-wrote the final episode of Apple’s Little America, which The Hollywood Reporter called ‘the show’s pinnacle,’ and named as one of the best 10 episodes of television in 2020; this episode has also just won a Glaad award, with the series nominated for Best New Scripted Series at the Independent Spirit awards.
Amrou was also a writer on BBC America’s series The Watch, and has sold pilot scripts to FX Productions, ABC and BBC Drama. They have written many episodes for Channel 4’s longest running soap opera, Hollyoaks. Their first feature as writer/director, LAYLA, a contemporary queer Romeo & Juliet immersed in the warring factions of the gay community during Pride, is greenlit by Film4 and The BFI and is produced by Savannah James Bayly & producer of Sorry To Both You, Nina Yang.
As an actor, Amrou has principal credits in Carnival Row (Series 2), Venom 2, Christopher Robin (Disney), The Souvenir 2 (Joanna Hogg), Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, and many others. Amrou has written & directed four short films, which have been broadcast on PBS, NOWNESS, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, BFI-Player, Revry, and which have screened and won awards at festivals internationally, including the BFI London Film Festival plus more