Wigging Out

Alice Saville gets monobrowed with larger-than-life, all singing, all dancing Figs in Wigs

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Figs in Wigs
Published 15 Aug 2016

"It's Copydex". A globule of white, fish-smelling glue is hanging from the end of a brush that's already perilously close to my face. "It's what all the drag queens use". Figs in Wigs are wielding craft glue and glitter as they equip me with their signature monobrow, a weighty piece of forehead furniture that's been part of their look almost from day one. They're a surly girl gang, a flamboyant troupe who mix dance, live art and uncanny showmanship – and all five of them dress (almost) exactly alike.

This year, they're bringing Often Onstage to the Fringe. It's an unsettling, joyful dance show that parodies the weirdness of being a performer: from a sequence where they mimic the endless Shakespearean bows and bonkers props at The Globe, to a shuffling dance that's soundtracked by all the comments they get from friends and family, asking them where their careers are going. Oh, and a dragged up finale where they transform into The Backstreet Boys.

As Rachel Gammon explains, "We chose to perform their song 'Larger Than Life' because it's all about the strange reality of being a performer and how you're dependant on other people's opinions, and doing everything for other people's enjoyment. It was their comeback album, and you can hear that in the lyrics: 'Every time we're down, you can make it right'."

Their first time dragging up was for drag king competition 'Man Up' at Dalston queer venue The Glory earlier this year. Since then, it feels like women in drag are more and more visible – including Rachael Clerke's Cuncrete, a drag king punk band that satirises the meglomaniac architects who build high-rise, brutalist tower blocks. Rachael Clerke explains that, "I've been performing as blokes for years without really noticing. But this year I became interested in what it might be like to use a male character throughout a show. It's been difficult, but also liberating, to spend all this time as a sleazy middle aged man."

Figs in Wigs agree. "When we dressed as men we suddenly found ourselves completely empowered on stage, doing things we'd never do as women,"says Rachel Porter. Dragged up as men, they can swagger, strut and rip off their shirts. But their usual ensembles are a kind of drag, too. They're masquerading as mad old ladies from another planet, in frumpy skirts, sequinned bumbags, fluffy wigs and, of course, bonkers make up. They never smile. And as Porter explains: "We actively try to hide our sexuality onstage as women, because what we do works against the objectification of the female body."

Drag culture is often seen as the territory of gay men, a place for hyper-femininity and self-aware glamour. So how have male audiences reacted to these weird, monobrowed Backstreet Boys? "We worried about it," says Porter. "Some of us are gay, some of us are straight. But is this our territory? Can we do this? But as soon as we did our first performance in drag we realised that it's fine, because drag isn't to do with sexuality, it's to do with gender." And, as she admits with more than a hint of pride, "lots of our gay male friends fancy us in drag as boys".

Women are just as keen. "It's the first time we've had people screaming for us, and that's exciting! It's kind of addictive, getting that reaction. We even had a pair of knickers thrown at us – then hilariously, the girl had to come up to the stage at the end and say, 'Can I have those back, I'm on my period?' We were like, 'Yes, we know'."

The Backstreet Boys might be best remembered as cheesy nineties pin-ups, but the Figs are full of respect for the artistry of their work. "Their dance routines are so, so tough!" says Alice Roots. "We need to practice it every day, and we still haven't mastered it." You can see the effort that's gone in to replicating every swagger, strut, or coy flick of a fringe. But although Often Onstage is mostly a dance show, the Figs aren't trained dancers.

"When we rehearse, it sounds completely cryptic - we have all these weird terms we use," adds Porter. "We had Tom Roden from [experimental dance group] New Art Club come and watch us, and he was completely appalled. He said, 'You're breaking all the rules, and you don't even know you're doing it!'."

But if Figs in Wigs don't quite fit into the mainstream dance world, they've been embraced by the cabaret scene. They've danced dressed as neon grannies, Empire State Buildings and carnival queens – in identical costumes sourced from eBay and charity shops. And they get loads of quirky charm from this improvised, lo-fi aesthetic. But as they explain, it's not always a choice.

"There's no money, so you live within your means. But in an ideal world, we'd have trapdoors, people flying in..." says Roots. Their show did originally end with a bang, she explains, but it didn't go well. "We wanted pyrotechnics – the first time we set them off they called the fire brigade."

There have been plenty more mishaps creating Often Onstage, from smashed lightbulbs to a bath full of blood that had to be abandoned because it was too heavy. But as Porter says, the Figs "like things that are slightly off, a bit wrong". As I peel the Copydex from my forehead (removing part of my eyebrows in the process), I feel a bit wonky, too. But although their ambitions might be bigger, the Figs' ramshackle approach feels custom-built for the Fringe.

"We make stupid weird stuff that alienates people," concludes Porter. "But it's no weirder than a group of Shakespearean actors with wigs and hilarious props." And off they shuffle, gathering stares in their velvet capes and ruffs: even offstage, they're larger than life.