Words & pics by Eleanor Sutcliffe
“One sock, or two?”
Nursing a pint of cider, I have found myself advising a drag king on the appropriate amount of stuffing for their underwear. I am no longer a writer, nor a photographer – I am now, in the words of performer Phillip Phallus, a Codpiece Consultant. It’s a title I neither expected to have nor feel that I deserve, but I’m flattered nevertheless. After debating the size different between trainer and football socks, we agree on a single sock. Two seems like overkill.
The venue for Valley of the Kings is the Quantum Exhibition Centre in the middle of Digbeth – a trek, but worth it regardless (and if you lose your way, just keep an eye out for the ‘Thigh Kingdom Comes’ signs that are dotted along Lower Trinity Street). Advertised by a jaunty geometric sign handcrafted by Kali who runs KUCHE at the Ort Café, the small doors lead you into a towering warehouse ran by the charity Nightlife Outreach, who deal with issues from mental health to homelessness to substance abuse. It’s great knowing that tonight not only are you supporting the performers present, but your well-earned money that you spend on the bar is going towards a great cause too.
I’m ushered into a small room off the main warehouse, in which the crowd are dotted across numerous sofas. Soon, the night is in full swing. First up is Abel Valentine, who struts on to a redubbed version of the Shrek fairy tale narrative, depicting their parent’s horror at giving birth to a “f***ing drag king” before launching into a lip sync to the very apt ‘Gay Bar’ by Electric Six. Capering across the room, they sing into the faces of the audience with glee, grabbing their hands and forcing them to dance.
Following Abel is Uffa Fox and Great Britain, who perform a rather bizarre yet hilarious dance and lip sync to ‘Tight Little Island’. Although everyone’s performances are short, it’s still enough to capture their joy and enthusiasm at having a stage on which to perform. Lucius Blac is amazing, performing ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ before dragging a blow up doll clad in lingerie on stage and slow dancing with it to finish.
Wavy Davy drops to their knees while strumming a pink electric guitar along to a Prince track, and I can’t help but marvel at the confidence all the performers seem to have tonight. Phillip Phallus (or One Sock Phillip as they are now known) performs a Clockwork Orange inspired piece, sauntering on stage cloaked in a flasher mac before casting it aside in favour of a pair of comically large white Y-Fronts. No details are spared for the performers, right down to the glass of ‘milk’ which Phillip chugs down at the end of their performance.
Eager for some crowd participation, Valentine takes to the stage again to announce a ‘Manliest Man’ competition. The ensuing chaos is hilarious – participants are forced to dance their ‘manliest’ dance before being told to grab ‘manly’ items from members of the crowd. These include watches, a beer (not a cider as one unlucky competitor learnt mind) and a pair of trainers. After five rounds, Phillip Phallus is crowned the winner and presented with a rather garish tiara which stays glued to their head for the rest of the night.
Johnny Gash wanders on stage to strum along to ‘Personal Jesus’, clad in a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. Lucius Blac then returns to the stage to perform my favourite act of the night, singing along to Panic at the Disco’s ‘Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time’. In the final chorus, they produce a bottle of Moët champagne and empty it over their head, dousing themselves in gold glitter. It’s simple, but effective – or maybe I’m just a sucker for theatrics. Who knows. By now, it’s almost 11pm and I start to gather my things. The party is still in full swing however, and the Britalo Kings emerge on stage to perform a 40-minute dance set.
In the dressing room, I strike up a conversation with one of the performers. We begin to discuss the impact of Valley of the Kings on their life, and the night takes a slightly harrowing turn. I’m told how their family views their lifestyle with disgust, and how their sister attempted to force them into a gay conversion therapy. We discuss how they’ve travelled for miles to perform tonight, and how their family are totally unaware of where they are.
It’s heartbreaking – they’re not much older than me, and the thought of them having to travel so far from home in order to explore their gender expression angers me. It serves as a constant, albeit sad, reminder that despite the fun and games, events such as Valley of the Kings serve as key safe spaces for individuals to express themselves with no boundaries.
For more on Valley of the Kings, visit www.facebook.com/ValleyOfTheKingsBirmingham
For from the Quantum Exhibition Centre, visit www.quantumexhibitioncentre.com