THE Ruby Slippers, a new play about love and identity set in a Blackpool gay bar, is on a mini North West tour this week and comes to the Epstein this weekend.
“The play explores issues of identity and predjudice in the LGBT community – with outrageous drag queens, of course,” explains one of its writers and stars, Emma Culshaw.
We’re sold. Emma is one half of Break a Leg Productions, along with writing partner David Paul. The Crosby-based pair have written scripts for film and TV, but decided the tale of The Ruby Slippers was one to be told on stage.
At the centre of it all is Raz, owner of the Ruby Slippers club and hopelessly in love with his flatmate and barman, Ryan. The feeling is mutual. However, Ryan has a secret, known only by his mother Helen, who supports her son’s decision and encourages him to tell Raz the whole truth.
If the name rings a bell, it was first performed at the Lantern last year. Now with city producer Bill Elms on board and Arts Council funding secured, the piece is moving into its next phase.
“It all began in 2015 when we did a read through and got some really good feedback,” she explains. “We decided with this, instead of writing a script for TV we wanted to put it on stage and be in control.”
Owen Richard Farrow is one of the play’s poster children – one of the fabulous queens you might recognise from the Ruby Slippers’ promo campaign (he’s on the right in the pic above). In the show, he is Destiny – but clubbers and RuPaul’s Drag Race fans in Manchester will know him better as his drag alter-ego Divina de Campo.
“Oh, it’s a busman’s holiday for me in a way, but I really want to move more into theatre work as it’s something I’m trained in, he says. “My career went off on a tangent, doing more pubs and clubs, and now it’s veering towards doing more theatre and TV, and that’s the direction I’ve wanted to move things in,” he says.
“What’s interesting for me is that although I’m playing a drag queen, I’m not Divina di Campo – it’s a different character to me and that’s what I’m enjoying. But so much of the character I recognise from people I’ve met. I know the character, I’ve experienced this life.
“Destiny provides the comedy but there’s other stuff going on underneath, just like we all have. It’s not a 2D representation, that’s what makes it more interesting.”
Farrow, 33, has been involved with The Ruby Slippers since its first read through – a memorable occasion for running into H from Steps. “I just did the whole weird fangirl thing,” he laughs.
He’s been doing drag professionally for more than a decade, has a fondness for singing Italian arias (even appearing on BBC show The Voice showcasing Divina’s impressive range), and as a regular performer at AXM in Manchester, in recent years has become a well-known opening act for visiting stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, including season six winner and ‘insult queen’ Bianca del Rio’s theatre comedy shows.
“Bianca was amazing, and it’s been good for me as it’s exposed me to lots of people who probably wouldn’t have come across me in ordinary circumstances, and that’s been a really positive effect,” Farrow says.
“American drag is very different to British drag, and you see now some younger queens have a misconception about what sells to a British audience. The Drag Race girls sell and people enjoy it because it’s them – a working queen in the UK has to approach it in a different way, because you’re not an established name – you have to be able to really work them in with stagecraft.”
One of British drag’s great landmarks, though, is Blackpool’s Funny Girls club, where The Ruby Slippers was performed this week – the first play to be staged there.
“Performing at Funny Girls is literally one of the most exciting things ever,” says Farrow. “It’s given me the opportunity to fulfil a dream. To be on the same stage as Betty Legs – drag royalty!”
Catch The Ruby Slippers at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on Saturday, November 5 – there’s two shows, at 6pm and 9pm, as part of this year’s Homotopia programme.