DEATH DROP: BACK IN THE HABIT

★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _18th MAR.

March 14, 2023
images © Danny Kaan.

“Good luck, and don’t f*ck it up.”

The now-iconic catchphrase from cultural colossus RuPaul’s Drag Race (indeed, one of countless), it echoes out early on here as a crowd-friendly opener to launch Back in the Habit – the latest ‘Death Drop’ outing from Tuckshop Productions. On screen, it usually precedes moments of camp, humour and occasionally even disaster, as the prelude to the show’s famous lip sync smackdowns.

Here, it’s one of an admirably small number of overt Drag Race references and yet, by throwing down the gauntlet to not fu… muck things up, it ends up being quite ironically portentous.

First, let’s get some important socio-cultural housekeeping out of the way.

At a time when the rights of drag and queer performers are being stomped on at an alarming rate internationally, where artistry and expression from the LGBTQIA+ community is coming up against increasingly hate-fuelled and harmful rhetoric, and when the trans community in particular are facing hostility and dehumanising attacks at an unacceptably accelerating and relentless pace, we should all be grateful for the fact that shows like Death Drop are here. To see a cast of hugely talented performers from across the LGBTQIA+ and gender spectrum on stage, performing queer-written and devised material, is always something to celebrate.

And yet, in a way, it’s because of this, and precisely because of the evident talent of those on stage, that Death Drop: Back in the Habit feels like such a disappointing follow up to its predecessor.

The original Drop – last reviewed back in 2021 with Drag Race alumni Willam, Rajah O’ Hara and Vinegar Strokes amongst the lineup, was an irreverent, unapologetic riff on classic murder mysteries (a ‘Drag-atha Christie’, or so the marketing told us) and Frayn, with a dollop of distinctly British funny a la, say, Victoria Wood thrown in for good measure.

Back in the Habit, conversely, feels like a show that has had much of its heart and wit wrested out from it, and that’s probably because it pretty much has. Serially-deadpan Holly Stars, the drag performer who wrote and starred in the OG Drop is nowhere to be seen here – on either the page or stage.

The charming, barmy jokes about vienetta and crispy pancakes are replaced here with, well, Kitty Scott-Claus drinking piss.

Now, let’s not pretend the original was going to be nudging Chekov off of the shelves any time soon, but there was lots to be said for how its bonkers spin on the manor house murder mystery formula knew when to go crude and dirty, and when to just make a silly quip about, say, Princess Diana.

To give Back in the Habit its due, it does at least attempt to do something a little more original with its plot (insert ‘loose’ double entendre here). LoUis CYfer’s Father Alfie Romeo (it’s drag – punny names are a given) is instructed to visit the enigmatic ‘St. Babs’ on the hunt for a missing priest, whilst also investigating rumours of an ancient treasure hidden deep within the monastery’s bowels (…do your worst with that one). There, he comes up against Babs’ formidable Mother Superior (Victoria Scone) and her trifecta of nun-derlings – Sister Mary Berry (Cheryl Hole), Sister Mary ‘Sis Titis’ Titis (Kitty Scott-Claus) and Sister Maria JulieAndrews (Jujubee).

Habit does a canny job of setting out its stall as an impending murder mystery or thereabouts, before taking a left turn into altogether less expected territory.

Sadly, it doesn’t stick the landing, and any glimpses of promise and intrigue at the close of Act I are fairly quickly scuppered by an increasingly messy and chaotic second half, which bypasses anarchy altogether to land firmly in the farcical and the crass.

It perhaps wouldn’t be as glaring were it in the hands of less capable performers, but there are so many moments and beats of Back in the Habit which offer momentary windows and peaks into a better written and executed production, namely thanks to its cast. Serial Drag Race returnee, the consummately lovable Jujubee, does the absolute most that they can with the very least that is the flighty, innocent Sister Mary JulieAndrews, terrifying wig ‘n all. Indeed, outside of a giggle-worthy opening scene with a pair of tits (careful), she is mostly relegated to being a side player throughout.

Similarly likeable, the self-deprecating Cheryl Hole gets the odd moment to shine – such as an impromptu prayer – but again, it’s hard not to feel the weight of so much lumbering writing bearing down on her otherwise fun, funny shoulders. To call Kitty Scott-Claus’ crass Sister Mary Titus one-note would be generous, with Scott-Claus, again, really giving it her all to elevate material that has very little for her to do outside of base bitchiness, spouting the ‘c’ word with liberal abandon, and oodles of base courseness such as the aforementioned urinary guzzling.

“…there are so many moments and beats of Back in the Habit which offer momentary windows and peaks into a much better written and executed production, namely thanks to its cast.”

LoUis CYfer fares better, with his questionable Father Romeo at least given some dimension and comedy outside of the immediately brazen and obvious, but again, the show doesn’t really know what to do with him. At times the character feels like a sleazy antagonist destined for the chop, and at others like the fish out of water everyman we should be rooting for. Look, I’ll say it again – nobody is expecting profundity from a drag comedy show, but even the silly archetypes of the original Drop knew where and how to pitch its leads. Come what may, credit must at least go to Back in the Habit for finally putting a drag king front and centre as its main character, something that remains disappointingly rare within even the drag world (take note, Drag Race…).

If there is one saving grace amidst the misfires and mayhem, one gleaming beacon of light that spills in through the cracks, it’s Drag Race UK and, more recently, Canada Vs the World’s, Victoria Scone. Scone, who made history as the first cis woman to compete on Drag Race, is a gifted stage presence and comedienne, bringing a confident restraint and hushed authority to her Mother Superior. She’s frequently funny, often hilarious even, with just the subtlest of glances or briefest of asides. It’s an anchor of nuanced performance amongst all the noise about her, and the closest Back in the Habit gets to the characters and performances that clearly inspired its predecessor – with hints of fussy, distinctly British comedy types ranging from Routledge through to even flashes of Woodburn and Wood. Sure, she gets more than her own handful of base moments – particularly concerning a certain anatomical treasure – but Scone again pitches them shrewdly, often underplaying to great effect, where others around her are swinging big.

“Scone… is a gifted stage presence and comedienne… She’s frequently funny, often hilarious even, with just the subtlest of glances or briefest of asides.”

By the time we’ve endured what feels like the umpteenth gag about walking (or running) in slow motion, and zombie nuns are being decapitated on one corner of the stage whilst elsewhere we see yet another case of simulated masturbation, it’s really only the talents of Scone and friends that even marginally keep it together. Jokes about Mr Blobby and Gollum do little to dissuade the sense that the writing here is in need of some serious hydration. You’ll see the ‘twist’ coming a mile off.

It’s a shame, because despite several of the characters poking fun at how ‘cheap’ the show is, it actually looks and sounds perfectly decent. Peter Mackintosh’s set of the ominous confines of St. Babs does the job well (if an extra bit of furniture or scenery here and there wouldn’t go amiss), and is elevated immeasurably by some particularly effective lighting and sound by Rory Beaton and Beth Duke, respectively. There are even, no joke, parts of Back in the Habit that elicit a genuine sense of foreboding tension, with a jump scare or two thrown in for good measure, too.

But, does it ‘f*ck it up’?

Well, mostly (and sadly) yes, but not entirely.

Leave any preconceptions – including those you may have had from the first Death Drop – squarely at the door, and you may well find lots to enjoy and laugh at here. In the performance reviewed, there were audibly plenty in the audience having a quite fabulously funny time of it. And yes, it bears repeating, pushing subjective opinions of quality aside, we should always be celebratory of queer art and entertainment being given a chance to be staged and performed.

But, even by the barometer of its own franchise, Back in the Habit squanders a fantastic cast with uninspired, base writing and flat direction that winds up feeling closer to an extended version of one of those terrible Drag Race parody skits, compared to the fizzier cocktail of satirical, saucy funny that came before it.

It tries, and Jesus knows Scone in particular does some extraordinarily heavy lifting here, but Death Drop: Back in the Habit seems to suffer a fairly critical blow fron the absence of its muse.

And, in missing the ‘Stars’, Habit doubles down on landing fairly squarely – and flatly – in the gutter, instead.

A disappointing follow-up that foregoes much of its former wit, silliness and heart. Scone is a delight who carries the day, but in truth, all involved deserve better.

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