In the smoking area of an East London pub, Lavinia Co-op offers me a cigarette then we chat for 45 minutes about the club scene in the city. He proposes to give me a lesson on how to improve my posture and present myself with more confidence. Lavinia was a dancer before he co-founded the theatre company Bloolips with actor Bette Bourne in 1977. The intention of the troupe was clear: to spread a freeing message of empowerment and joy through drag. In costumes made from mop heads, charity shop garments and with Pierrot-esque make-up, Bloolips embodied the gender and sexual liberation they hoped to see reflected in broader society. Forty-two years after their formation, a new exhibition of ‘frocks, films and photographs’ titled ‘Bloolips and Radical Drag’ at Platform Southwark in London celebrates the troupe’s powerful work.
In the mid-1970s, Bourne felt disillusioned with the elitism and stiff codes of the theatre world. His antidote came in the form of a ‘politically camp’ performance of The Heat (1974) by the New York radical drag group Hot Peaches at Oval House Theatre in London. Former members of Hot Peaches included LGBT+ activist Marsha P. Johnson and writer and actor Peggy Shaw.
Hot Peaches took the melody to familiar songs and substituted the words to tell humorous stories. Their style was similar to San Francisco group The Cockettes, who seven years earlier, had started to produce LSD-fuelled, gender-variant shows influenced by Jack Smith’s experimental film Flaming Creatures (1963) and John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous theatre ensemble.
Bourne became involved with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the early ’70s and was inspired by the strength of a man at a GLF meeting who wore a denim skirt. Bloolips formed after Bourne returned from a tour of Europe with Hot Peaches. Their early rehearsals took place in a flat in Notting Hill, where the ceiling collapsed, signalling the beginning of a chaotic 20-year career.
In November 1980, a review of Bloolip’s Lust in Space (1980–82) in New York’s Village Voice newspaper stated: ‘the many faces of drag – varsity, music hall, chanteuse, tap tap chorus, gender-fuck – are flung at the delighted audience like roses or tomatoes by Lavinia Co-op, Precious Pearl, Dizzy Danny, Gretel Feather, Naughty Nickers and troupe leader Bossy Bette.’
Bourne was meticulous when directing their shows. Though they could seem intentionally lacklustre on stage, each line was precisely scripted by John Taylor to solicit the biggest laughs. In the US, they enjoyed enormous success, performing to sold-out auditoriums, receiving a prestigious Obie Award (Off-Broadway Theatre Award) in 1980.
In the late ’90s, after two decades of extensive touring and the tragic loss of member Diva Dan to AIDS in 1988, the group disbanded and the members began pursuing independent projects. Co-op continues to be a supportive presence for young artists in London and recently appeared on the front cover of Attitude magazine, in an issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Bloolips was a reaction to the time, a means through which the members could channel an alternative, fabulous, way of being. Later, Bourne would say ‘we were hitting out at the far right, especially the religious right.’ They operated as a financial co-operative, only ever receiving one grant from the Arts Council. Today, this ethos is more relevant than ever. To quote Co-op, it was ‘a good chance to dress up and do something silly.’
Bloolips and Radical Drag runs from 16–26 July at Platform Southwark, London, UK and Bloolips will be in conversation with Neil Bartlett on 18 July.