Rachael Clerke and her motley crew throw masculinity and materialism into a cement mixer in drag king punk satire show Cuncrete, which looks at modern man through the lens of Thatcherism and the housing crisis.
Cuncrete has been touring, in one version or another, since 2015; the show arose from Clerke’s own interest in architecture; “I’m fascinated by the built environment and everything that’s involved with that; brutalism, social housing, right to buy.” Its last ever performance took place at the A.E. Harris venue in the Jewellery Quarter, as part of Birmingham’s Shout Festival, the 10-day celebration of queer creativity. The bare, industrial space lends a touch of verisimilitude to the show — this kind of gig simply wouldn’t work in a theatre.
As Archibald Tactful, Clerke embodies the swaggering, suited, sleazy machismo of Eighties Britain. Archibald is backed up by the rest of the band; a rogue’s gallery of masculine archetypes. There’s aristocratic Jonty, all tweed and stiff upper lip, louche Bullingdon alum Johnnie Jove, who glowers and thrusts at the audience from behind the bass. And Little Keith, the scrappy social climber who clawed his way into the Great White Males by becoming a landlord and property developer.
For the next hour, viewers are both amused and unnerved as architect and braggart Archibald Tactful struts around the stage and through the audience, boasting about his wealth and success, rubbing his crotch and making cement seem like a filthy word. Because what are these giant concrete structures, thrusting up into the sky, if not symbols of unfettered male ego? Or at least, that’s one conclusion you could take from the image which closes the show; Archibald standing in a cement mixer into which he has just urinated, waving a phallus in the air, chanting “Utopia!”
The show is knee-deep in Eighties references, but the parallels with today are pretty evident. Although Clerke admits that it’s a lot harder to write satire about current events these days. “Sometimes you look at people and think oh god, you’ve done it for us,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s so ridiculous, it’s difficult to parody.”
Clerke first started playing drag characters back in 2011, during a show on Scottish nationalism at university, in which she dressed up as “the big men of Scotland,” from Alex Salmond to Braveheart. At the time, though, it didn’t occur to her that what she was doing was drag, specifically.
“For me, it’s about embodying things in order to take the piss out of them,” she says. “If you dress up as someone, you can make him do whatever you want. There’s this weird underdog power to being these people, which is why I’m always attracted to quite powerful, nasty men… I like idea of taking power that I didn’t think I had, and portraying these symbolic figureheads.”
She also enjoys taking something we see as the default — the straight white man — and making him seem strange. “Us performing as these men, as a bunch of queer women and misfits, is making them strange. Even though we’re just wearing suits and quoting real speeches, by being these drag characters you can then go ‘oh it’s weird that we think this is really normal.’” In a way, they’re simply following the first rule of comedy; punch up, not down. “It’s a lot more interesting to ‘other’ something that’s seen as top, or default, than to do it to myself as a queer woman,” says Clerke. “I’m very comfortable being ‘other’.”
The Great White Males originally came together as a part of making the show, but while Cuncrete may be over for good, they will definitely continue to do gigs together. “The band has completely taken on a life of its own,” says Clerke.