"I've got the Church Times coming to review me tomorrow, and..." Performance artist Lucy McCormick trails off. Her rave-reviewed show Triple Threat would definitely send some churchgoers fleeing with cries of "Get behind me, Satan!" She’s anointed with Hellmann’s mayonnaise. She crowd surfs over her ‘congregation’. She’s proudly pantless. And she turns God into Goddess: a show-tune singing diva who makes sure her troupe of backing dancers toe the line.
But she's clear that Triple Threat "was never designed in opposition to Christianity, or aiming to undermine it. How else would I tell this story? Number one as a woman, which is already problematic, because Jesus is this ultimate man figure. But also because my life is so steeped in pop culture. I'm working with modern day references like pop music, trash TV, porn, so very everyday stuff.”
In person, Lucy McCormick is a model of clean living. When we meet, she’s sipping pea velouté in the dining room of a fancy hotel, fresh from a gym – like a Hollywood actor who's trying to convince a Vanity Fair interviewer that's she's firmly back on the wagon. But it feels churlish to be surprised. What makes her work so exciting is the confidence with which she straddles multiple worlds. She’s trained in musical theatre, giving her both an incredible toolbox of dance and singing skills to bring to her performance art work, and the show title Triple Threat, which suggests both the divine Holy Trinity, and the rare performers who can sing, act and dance.
By contrast, performance art is often deliberately scrappy, rejecting the skills of traditional theatre as an anti-mainstream artistic choice. But as McCormick explains, “I like the idea of having a show that's both DIY and weirdly virtuosic and slick as well”. It's an aesthetic she embraced with her company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN.
The name’s a tribute to the words a policeman screams in blind fury at the eponymous alcoholic actor in Withnail and I. And fittingly enough, the company has a reputation for the uncontainable, periodically infuriating way they play with the rules of theatre. In Big Hits they satirised the voyeurism of reality TV, before giving the audience a long look up McCormick's arse. In Number 1, The Plaza, they unearthed some (fake) poo from a Tupperware box and smeared it over a soulless apartment. And since then, McCormick’s popped up solo at the grimier, artier end of cabaret nights, doing a riff on a notorious Big Brother scene with a wine bottle.
The queer nightlife scene is a natural fit for her work – somewhere you can cheerfully give birth to baby Jesus on stage, or make free with a crucifix. But she’s birthed Triple Threat far away from the safe haven of cabaret clubs or avant-garde theatre hubs – into the stable of cow-themed mega-venue the Underbelly. This, like all her choices, was carefully considered.
“My audience demographic has been quite niche so far, but I really wanted the work to be right in the middle of this typical big, very Edinburgh, very fringe-y context. It can speak to quite a wide range of people, which is really satisfying.”
It's a choice that reflects her political energy. “Because of the way I look, being white, conventional, I can quite easily fit into very mainstream society." But although it might be tempting to hide her light under a bushel, she’s committed to owning it.
“I’m three-dimensional. Of course one minute I can be naked and doing something radical, and the next I can be taking directions and keeping my mouth shut.”
She explains that when she was performing in a recent touring musical, “the producer came in one day, looking really concerned and a bit shocked, and he said, 'I’ve been looking at your Twitter feed. Your photos are quite scary'. They had no idea about what I did, and I did feel a bit funny about that.”
It is funny, but revealing too. The musical theatre world tore down Sheridan Smith for the apparently unforgivable crime of appearing to be drunk during her West End performance of Funny Girl. And its biggest hits—The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables—do their best to keep the old Madonna-whore complex going long after the rest of the world has shrugged it off. McCormick seems frustrated by the limitations of musical theatre, adding that, “I think we just categorise people too much”.
Her director for Triple Threat is another woman who won’t stay in her box: the wildly funny comedian, cabaret star and live artist Ursula Martinez. After her red hanky striptease routine was leaked on YouTube, Martinez attracted hordes of pervy male fans, whom she satirises in her most recent show Free Admission – the name’s partly a comment on the sexual availability they read into her performance.
Martinez’s contributions have helped McCormick tread the weird line between accessibility and message. “I'm subverting a lot of the images I see, and I'm trying to gain agency over my own body. But if people think, ‘Oh god, that's a bit sexy’ or something, I think, ‘Yeah it is’. And sometimes it's about owning that: it's kind of a taboo to say nudity isn’t about sex. But then if you say it is about sex, people think you’re doing a live sex show or something.”
Reviewers have struggled to find a polite synonym for the ‘sexiest’ moment in Triple Threat – “digital anal penetration” seems to be the consensus. But McCormick is refreshingly straightforward about it: “The body becomes almost a prop, or just another way of demonstrating what's going on in the story. Sometimes that can feel difficult or shocking for people, but people seem to be swept along by the humour of it too.”
McCormick is frustrated by people who dismiss her work as "bonkers" or "crazy" without trying to understand its politics, though. “It's interesting to see if people feel uplifted or very, very challenged, but for me it should be both. I try to manipulate them into having a good time, but I'm also going, ‘Oooh, was that okay?’”
It's one of many tricky dualities she's trying to navigate: but caught between body and soul, she's got critics and audiences alike singing her praises.