Phillip Gandey on Thailandís amazing LadyboysDate: 1 May 2012
For several years now one of the main events of Brighton Fringe has been the exciting, fascinating and occasionally outrageous show by The Ladyboys of Bangkok.This year they will be bringing their brand new show Carnival Queens to the festival and, as they prepared to open the Sabai Pavilion to the public, I took the opportunity to talk to the show’s Director, Phillip Gandey, about the production, and its cultural background.
Where did the Ladyboys originate?
The performing side was then revived about 25 to 30 years ago as a tourist entertainment and has since gained in popularity to the extent that in Bangkok now there are five or six multi-million pound purpose-built theatres which just host Ladyboys shows. So the Ladyboys as performance artists have really re-established themselves as a big part of Thailand’s culture.
How did you first get involved with the production?
I first discovered the show about 14 years ago, when I was doing a stopover in Bangkok and I bought them over to the Edinburgh Festival, very much as they were, doing a lot of Thai, Chinese and Korean numbers with very little comedy. We had massive publicity but very little in the way of ticket sales, although sales did build as the festival went on. The next year we didn’t bring them over, but so many people asked us about them that we came back in year three and I started directing the show myself. We added more comedy and western numbers and, as they say, the rest is history.
The success of the Ladyboys bemuses a lot of people and, I hasten to say that although I think they are fantastic, myself included. To sum the Ladyboys up as a show is very difficult. As one critic in Manchester said, “The Ladyboys could almost be considered to have invented their own art form”. They don’t sing live, they mime, and they are, although some people don’t believe it, men performing as women but what we have created is a night out which is completely unique in Europe. The audience is often predominantly female, although that can vary, but we like that because it’s a great, fun, girl’s night out where groups of women don’t feel threatened in any way.
So is it a mix of glamour, music and comedy?
Absolutely! When the Ladyboys first came over they did take themselves a bit too seriously and what I did as a director was to tell them that they look absolutely fantastic but the whole show needs to be much more tongue in cheek. I don’t think, as far as the content of the show goes, that it’s too vulgar. Yes, we are on the edge but to me it’s much more seaside postcard / Carry-on sort of humour and I don’t want to take it any further than that.
This year, when we open the show, we’ll be unveiling over 300 brand new handmade costumes. It’s a very big element of the show for us, as is the whole cabaret thing. Back in the 70s and 80s there were a number of cabaret clubs, but they are mostly all gone now so it’s great for the generations who have missed out on that to be able to come and sit round a table, with their friends, and not be in that formal, regimented, theatre environment.
Does that environment encourage audience participation?
More and more we have realised how much the audience do like to participate and this year it’s not just the comedy acts that will be down there. We’re also bringing the girls offstage to dance in amongst the audience. We are very conscious that some of our numbers work better with a certain amount of audience involvement and so , in the last few years, the show has gone more in that direction.
Also, over the last three years we have added a speciality act to the show. In 2010 we had a couple of Moroccan hand-to-hand acrobats, last year was an Ethiopian contortionist and this year we have a Chinese performer who works on a pole and he’s absolutely sensational.
The show really is a show of two halves, in the first half we do some show tunes – this year featuring Phantom and also a lot of the comedy. Then, in the second half, we do the torch songs and, at the end of the show, the dance numbers that everyone likes to join in with.
What theme can we expect for your show this year?
Our theme this time is Carnival Queens. Each new show takes a full 12 months for me to create. I look for new songs that we haven’t done before, songs that are topical, and once I have the base songs in place the title sort of evolves. I don’t set a title and then try and fix the show around it. I also make sure that I leave space for some topical comedy which is added in right before rehearsals start in January. This year we do a big Queen tribute and then a Latin-American carnival finale so Carnival Queens seemed like a logical title for, what we are sure will be a superb show.
The Ladyboys of Bangkok – Carnival Queens can be seen at the Sabai Pavilion, Victoria Gardens from 27 April – 27 May - see box office for details.