Anyone who has been to a show at Newcastle’s premier cabaret venue Boulevard over the years will know that there are two things guaranteed.
The first is a show full of talented performers, doing the very best to entertain their audience. The second is the acerbic wit of the show’s host and compere, Miss Rory. Those unlucky enough to be caught in her crossfire aren’t likely to forget it in a hurry. Dan Cunningham brings the acid-tongued one to life, and as the summer show continues it’s successful new run, I chatted to him about everything from being hailed ‘the people’s princess’ to finding a new headliner.
“I certainly never thought I’d do it for a living – or indeed to such public acclaim,” he says of his career in drag. “I’m often hailed as the People’s Princess. Naturally I’m far too humble to listen.” It’s clear he’s only half-joking and It’s this mixture of humour and faux modesty that has helped make Miss Rory one of the most popular – and most successful – entertainers in Newcastle. Whilst Rory is known for her cutting put-downs, I’ve always got along famously with Dan. A stalwart of the gay scene, he began performing in bars like Switch and The Bank, years before Boulevard.
“I started when I was about 18, as something of a party piece. Then I got offered little bits of work. Safe to say everybody starts somewhere – and I was the absolute pits.
But when I started out I was probably the only person starting out in Newcastle at the time – there was no Drag Idol or suchlike. I was ‘mentored’ by the living legend Greta La More (a famous Newcastle drag queen) and it all went from there. So if anyone’s to blame – it’s her!”
The Drag Idol competition he’s talking about is an annual contest held to find ‘the next big thing’, in the vein of the US television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. He is one of the judges, and year after year continues to bring punters back. He often jokes the competition should be renamed Rory Idol. But, it’s Boulevard where he has found infamy.
So how did the show come to him?
“I had a ‘real’ full time job as a manager in Debenhams and something of a normal life. I think I was the go-to to host events in Newcastle because my gob set me apart.” I can attest to this.
“So when the idea to create this brand new show bar in town was being conceived, I was taken over to the building and given a sort of guided tour. It was just a shell of a building at the time, and I was basically ‘told’ that I’d be standing up there doing what I now do. So I had to go away and decided if this was what I wanted to do. I’d have to give up the normality of a somewhat mundane job to start this new adventure.
Obviously it didn’t take me long to decide. And nearly 6 years later – here I am. I can honestly say it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
As the Spring show neared the end of its run earlier this year, it was announced that Betty Legs Diamond (above), the show’s creator and star, would be leaving to return to Blackpool’s Funny Girls venue. So, who would be the one to step into the limelight and become Boulevard’s new headline act?
A few names were banded about but Dan had only one person in mind for the job.
Yorkshire-born, London-residing dancer Danni Dee (below) had been a friend of Betty’s and was the star of a successful night club act in the capital, so when the time came, it was clear who to call.
“I’ve known Danni for years and always admired her work, as well as valuing her friendship – although she does go on a bit,” he says, clearly excited about the new direction of the show. “That’s why he was my first choice as Betty’s replacement – and as soon as I took the producers to London to watch the show they agreed.”
Danni has debuted to sell-out shows and the summer run is picking up speed. “He knows exactly how we work – and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Our cast are highly trained and professional dancers; our production team know what they’re doing to create the most elaborate, but accessible, shows for our audiences. It doesn’t just happen over night. Nowhere else in the North East can do what we do, on the scale that we do it – and that’s testament to all of the above.”
The ticket sales seem to have put paid to any worries about a successful show, but will Danni alienate Boulevard’s clientele?
“I don’t think so, no. For a start, I’m still there – and let’s face facts here, I’m the main attraction. I mean I can dance, but I thought I’d give Danni a shot.
But seriously, I think the sterling work that Danni is doing will most certainly keep our regulars coming back, but I reckon because it’s all kind of ‘new’ again there’ll be a fair few more people through the doors…we’re certainly the talk of the town at the best of times, but with this new show, I think we’ll be the talk of quite a few towns!”
The LGBT community was rocked recently in the wake of the shootings in Orlando that left 49 innocent people dead in a gay nightclub. Communities across the world gathered to remember the lost lives and Newcastle was among them. It’s important to remember that drag and cabaret shows like Boulevard only exist because of a proud community. “That vigil was amazing. Naturally, we should never have had to gather like that – and I never thought I’d be asked to address the scene, on behalf of the scene, like that. But it just goes to show that a community can pull together, even if it’s just for half an hour and say ‘yes, we’re in this together – this is us’.”
The summer show at Boulevard is running until September 17. Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 0191 250 7068 or online here
Photo credits: LAH Photography