Newcastle drag duo to debut their Lads and Lashes show at Sunderland’s Quayside Exchange

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Individually, they’re both well-established on the North East’s drag circuit. Now, Newcastle drag queens Dixie Swallows and Penny Arcade are teaming up for the first of what they hope will be many successful nights at Sunderland’s Quayside Exchange as new double act, Lads and Lashes.

Dixie, also known as Jonmichael Samuels, and Stewie ‘Penny Arcade’ Layton have been firm friends for a couple of years now, and they each have their own signature style of drag. Dixie, the over-the-top campy comedienne, and Penny, the seasoned vet and Drag Idol judge. Now, they’ve decided to come together to create a show for The Quayside Exchange, Wearside’s beautiful grade II-listed venue.

“I was approached by the Quayside Exchange to come on board and create a monthly cabaret night – a night of traditional cabaret entertainment, which also included food and drinks in a wonderful venue,” says Jonmichael, who has been performing as alter-ego Dixie since coming second in Drag Idol last year. “I’ve been performing my one woman show there for five months now and every week it has gotten bigger and seems to have taken on a life of its own. It is such a beautiful venue and such a pleasure to be a part of.”

But how did the idea of a duo come to fruition?

“It all began when Stewie and I became friends after I started DJing at The Bank bar in Newcastle.

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(Above: Dixie Swallows)

He came along to my one-woman show at the Quayside Exchange as a friend to support what I was doing. He was really pleased with what I’d produced and seeing the show made him realise what it was that got him into the drag industry in the first place – the passion for entertaining and creating something that people enjoyed.

Stewie was at a cross roads as to where to take Penny, so it seemed a perfect fit that this new venture occurred,” Jonmichael says. “We started speaking about possibly doing something together and the rest you could say just fell into place.”

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(Above: Penny Arcade, far right, with fellow Drag Idol judges)

As Penny Arcade, Stewie has been a stalwart of the Newcastle gay scene for the past decade. More recently recognized as a DJ and host, as well as one of the judges of the aforementioned Drag Idol, the contest that discovered Dixie, he is no stranger to cabaret. After a recent step back from performing as Penny, this will be somewhat of a comeback for Stewie. “Five years ago I was lucky enough to have a residency in Marmaris, with my solo show,” he says. “As for duos, about 8 year ago, myself and another drag queen, Ruby Reynolds, toured from Brighton to Edinburgh and hit lots of Prides along the way.

Hopefully Lads and Lashes will have just as much success and be as much fun.”

The show is on Friday October 7 and standard tickets cost £5. For £15, you will get a sparkling reception, a sharing platter of food and table service. Having attended one of the first of Dixie’s shows, I can attest to the quality of not only the act, but also the venue’s hospitality.

The guys describe their show as “above all else an evening of fun.

You can expect to see all the characters and cabaret performances you would expect in a traditional drag queen entertainment show. All the numbers we have chosen are numbers we love to do, just as much as the audience, who seem to demand them time and time again.

It’s very much going to be a Penny and Dixie show so you can expect to see both of us, both individually and together.”

And as for the future, they already have more shows in their sights. “Lads and Lashes are not planning on going anywhere anytime soon,” Stewie says.

“We have already started planning Halloween, Christmas and even started on Valentines shows. This is very much a partnership which we are looking forward to taking as far as possible.”

Said shows include a Frocky Horror Picture Show on November 4, which will encourage audience participation and fancy dress, and a Christmas-themed Stocking Fillers show on December 1.

The first Lads and Lashes show is on Friday October 7 at The Quayside Exchange in Sunderland. 

For more information and to book tickets, contact the venue on 0191 5144574 or email events@quaysideexchange.com

Photos: LAH Photography

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INTERVIEW: Olivier award-winning actress Leanne Jones on being a West End star, motherhood and her headline slot at Sunderland Pride

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She made headlines in 2008 when, at the age of 22, she won the Olivier award for Best Actress In a Musical for her starry-eyed turn as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. This weekend, she is the headline act at Sunderland Pride and we chatted to the West End star ahead of her performance.

Hi Leanne! You played Tracy Turnblad in the West End. How did you get the part?

It was a long process and it spanned two years! Originally I went to an open audition when I was still in my second year of drama school. There were lots of rounds and the day after I got down to the final two with a girl who’s still my friend now.

You’ve described the audition process as being quite challenging and that you almost gave up at one point. What made you feel like that?

Being a jobbing actress was hard. I was so young and my only worry was paying my rent and trying to make it. Now I’m older and wiser and a mum, I know other things are more important.

A lot of people banded the term ‘overnight sensation’ about around you but it must have been an amazing experience for a young girl. How did it feel to win an Olivier for your first professional job?

Incredible. It was such an honour. I performed at this year’s Oliviers and it was just incredible (Leanne sang What I Did For Love from A Chorus Line alongside a host of other past winners). I had my hair and make up done and I was gifted a dress to wear. It was real first class treatment and made me feel so wonderful. It’s nice to be glamorous when you’re a busy mum of two.

Above: The cast of Hairspray performing at the Royal Variety Performance in 2007

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You recently got married (congratulations!) and have two little boys. Has it changed your outlook on performing? Does having children help you see things from a different point of view?

Yes my life is very different. I’m stronger and don’t give auditions and castings a second thought once I’ve left the room. I used to worry, praying for my phone to ring. I am still very much wanting to be an actress and it’s something I might do better in my later life anyways as I was always being told I looked too young for most things!

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Above: Leanne with Hairspray co-star Michael Ball, after they both picked up their Oliviers in 2008

You’ve appeared in Tick Tick Boom, as well as pantomime. Do you have any dream roles?

My dream role would be Fantine in Les Miserables or Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly! I’d love to crack some television roles too, just to see if it suits my lifestyle better. My boys are still young though, so I’m in no rush. It’s a very pleasant place to be in.

Are you excited to perform at Sunderland Pride. What can we expect from your set?

Im very excited! I have performed at so many pride events across the country. I just love singing and everyone is always so welcoming. Expect Good Morning Baltimore for sure and some pure pop classics!

Joining Leanne on the line-up is X Factor star Kitty Brucknell, Australian singer Kelly Wilde and a host of other acts. There will also be after-party celebrations; Whitney Houston tribute Ikenna and Leeds drag act The Viaduct Starlets will be at Eazy Street, Ttonic will be hosting a beach party and Danny Beard, from Britain’s Got Talent, will host a party at Basement.

Sunderland Pride takes place in Sunderland city centre today. The main stage line-up kicks off around 12pm.

Photos: Leanne Jones, Getty

REVIEW: Bridget Jones’ Baby has the formula for success – without milking it

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Seeing Bridget Jones, news journalist, independent woman and “wanton sex goddess”, again is like greeting an old friend; exciting, hilarious, warm and emotional. The third film in the series, Bridget Jones’ Baby (guess what it’s about!) provides all of these feelings in abundance in what is a fantastic, feel-good romp.

Bridget (Renee Zellwegger back in my favourite of her roles) is doing very well these days; a top news producer gig, she’s finally reached that pesky goal weight and she’s found some exciting new friends, since the last lot have all become wives and mothers. There’s one thing she is missing, however: a shag. So, enter Patrick Dempsey (excuse the pun) as Jack Qwant, a dashing American millionaire mogul with whom Bridget enjoys a night of passion with at a music festival. More familiarly, she also knocks boots with old flame Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) and finds herself with child.

What could have been a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy is made engaging by a hilarious script by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and actress Emma Thompson, who also stars as a scene-stealing gynecologist. It’s helped along by the return of almost all of the original cast (sans Hugh Grant – you’ll quickly find out what happened to Cleaver). Sally Phillips. Shirley Henderson, Celia Imrie and Jim Broadbent all appear.

When Zellwegger resurfaced last year after a (voluntary) hiatus from Hollywood, the press pack went IN. Reports she had had cosmetic surgery, the usual ageist remarks from the catty crew and of course, everyone asked just why she had been away so long. With this cloud engulfind the actress, it would be easy to forget that she is just that. An actress – and a fine one at that. This return (don’t call it a comeback) to comedy is a triumph. Everything we loved about Bridget the first time round becomes apparent immediately in the opening scene, as she listend to All By Myself as she had done so famously before. The accent is again en pointe and the audience is genuinely gripped by the ‘who’s the daddy?’ drama right up until a teary-eyed finale. Dempsey and Firth are excellent in their parts; Firth delivering his usual, but warm, stick-up-the-arse Briton as Mark and Dempsey proving just why he earned the nickname Dr McDreamy in Grey’s Anatomy (cue swoons). My star of the whole shabang was Sarah Solemani as Bridget’s co-worker Miranda. Best known for Bad Education, this could be Solemani’s ticket to Hollywood. She, along with Thompson, commands attention in every scene she’s in and she and Zellwegger prove a mighty fine double act.

Bridget Jones’ Baby has the formula for success down. Not as good as the first, way better than the second and leaves the door open for a fourth. With this though, they have delivered one of the best comedies of the year – without milking it.

Watch the trailer here.

Bridget Jones’ Baby is in cinemas now

Photo: All Star/Universal

REVIEW: Can I get an Amen? Sister Act raises its voice and raises the roof

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Whoopi Goldberg films have a proven track record of becoming hit musicals. The Colour Purple, The Lion King (she voiced a hyena in the movie) and more recently, Ghost. And this, Sister Act, one of her most famous roles, has followed suit. The show has been delighting audiences up and down the country on its current tour and this week, it was Sunderland’s turn to congregate.

Based on the 1992 movie also starring Dame Maggie Smith, the show sees Las Vegas headliner Deloris Van Cartier, here played by Alexandra Burke, on the road to becoming a superstar. That is, until, she is witness to a mob shooting by her boyfriend Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and is whisked away by the FBI into the witness protection programme. And where better to hide a glamorous, over-the-top diva – a convent, of course. Deloris shacks up with Mother Superior (Karen Mann) and the rest of the nuns and in time, discovers her love of singing may not be so useless to the Lord after all.

Having first seen the show back in 2011 on Broadway, I was intrigued to see what this new production would bring. I love Alan Menken’s work – he is best-known for Academy Award-winning music of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas and other stage hits like Little Shop of Horrors, and this score speaks for itself. Opening number, Take Me to Heaven, and the title song show both sides of what Burke can do – the energetic disco queen and the softer, emotional side of a woman who seems to have finally found her place in the world. Raise Your Voice is the standout – although there are a lot of other ‘filler’ numbers. Songs like The Lady In the Long Black Dress are rather forgettable.

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At the helm as both director and choreographer is Craig Revel-Horwood, better known these days as the catty and hard to impress judge of Strictly Come Dancing. So much so that it’s easy to forget that he is in fact an award-winning theatre choreographer. Following up his recent work on the UK tour of Annie, this show certainly gives him plenty to work with – a Dreamgirls-style Vegas girl group and a gaggle of dancing nuns? Fabulous, baby! Unique to this production, the actors themselves are playing the music. So a mobster could be armed with a guitar and a nun with a saxophone – a quirk I thought would be distracting, but works well. The aforementioned Raise Your Voice and Take Me To Heaven reprise see Deloris and the nuns go full choreo, to great effect. The nuns continually steal the show with a tight bond on stage and like-clockwork comedic timing. Susannah Van Der Berg, Sarah Goggin and Alison Harding are particular standouts.

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Burke is nothing short of sensational in the lead role. Fresh off playing Rachel Marron in both the West End and subsequent tour of The Bodyguard, this is another part almost tailor-made for a diva like her. Alan Menken’s music is made for a belty voice and, just like Patina Miller before her, soars when at her disposal. Songs like Raise Your Voice play to her strength as a star – she may as well have had a divine light shining down on her as she paired killer vocals with a surprising knack for comedy. Her attempt at an American accent can make it hard to understand her at times, though, and sometimes hampers the laughs.

It will be interesting to see where her stage career goes next, though – if theatre is indeed something she is going to passionately pursue, she may need to take some risks and move away from parts that are, more or less, a version of her X Factor persona. If Sister Act is anything to go by, though, she’ll be back in the habit of delighting audiences again in no time.

Sister Act is at the Sunderland Empire until September 10. It will then tour the UK. For more information and for tickets, click here

Photos: Tristram Kenton

REVIEW: Miss Rory – One Woman

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If you’ve ever been on Newcastle’s best (officially, as voted by readers of the Chronicle) night out to Boulevard, you’ll have more than likely experienced one or all of the following three things thanks to the venue’s hostess, Miss Rory: A) Split your sides laughing, b) been thoroughly entertained or c) been left cowering from one of her acerbic put-downs. Last night, the self-styled “People’s Princess” brought that triple-threat to a packed Tyne Theatre and left her audience reeling.

For one-night only, Rory, so vivaciously brought to life by Dan Cunningham, headlined her own one woman show titled, erm, One Woman. The show, produced by North East-based Nice Swan, was a night of witty anecdotes, tête-à-tête and, frankly, abrasive attacks on everything from illiterate Facebook supporters of Brexit (“I refuse to take political advice from someone who doesn’t know the difference between ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’”) to, controversially, the McCanns. It wasn’t so much a case of sink or swim for her targets, but rather who should manage to escape relatively unscathed and who should simply, as she puts it, ‘get in the sea.’

Other topics of discussion included being asked back to her old high school for an awards ceremony (“Hello children. Would anyone like to see my puppies?”) and generally being adored by the public (“my dressing room looks like a Spanish road side tonight”).
A few gags, particularly those in reference to the death of Princess Diana regularly towed the line between funny and tasteless (“I love your necklace, what is it?” “Mercedes”) but this is what Rory does best; a disclaimer was even put out at the beginning for those easily offended to make a swift exit.
It felt like Rory has been sharpening her tongue in preparation for this night for quite a while. The jokes came thick, fast and if Cunningham was nervous to be going it alone, there was little sign of it. Dressed to the nines in signature sparkly frocks and massive heels, which leave the comic rather terrifyingly towering well over 6 ft. and fresh off a recent hosting gig in that London’s Leicester Square, Rory skulked around the stage, laden with a gigantic shoe and make up accessories, like a seasoned stand-up pro.

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The show was also littered with video messages of good luck, including one from singer Beverley Knight, and a hilarious video of ‘Rory on tour’, which showed her skulking around Tynemouth stealing children’s’ ice creams and going on the lash in the Metro Centre. With a riotous standing O as she left the stage, the door was firmly propped open for more gigs to follow.
Nothing short of a legend on the Newcastle gay scene, Rory often jokes during shows at Boulevard that she is not a drag queen, but rather a headliner. And last night, she proved it. It was one very funny woman and one even funnier night – hopefully one of many, many more to come.

You can catch Miss Rory in action hosting at Boulevard Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For more info, click here. Read our interview with Dan here.