Tears of joy as Lady Boys of Bangkok finally return home to Edinburgh, where it all started
The Lady Boys of Bangkok were rehearsing their new show, Flight of Fantasy, in Thailand when the pandemic broke. Like millions around the world, their lives stopped overnight, put on hiatus for the next 16 months.
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So it's hardly surprising that when Philip Gandey, the co-creator and artistic director of The Lady Boys of Bangkok called their tour coach to tell them restrictions had been relaxed in Scotland just hours ahead of their arrival in the Capital, they were in tears.
Binky Beaumont, the company's Tour Director, is chatting with me in their big pink Festival Square tent as the audience arrive ahead of the opening performance. It has has already sold out. It appears Edinburgh loves the Lady Boys.
"When we made the call to get back to Edinburgh this year, we were prepared to break even or even to lose money just to bring the show back to the city," he reveals, "We wanted to reward our loyal customers who bought tickets last year and to keep all our team employed, a massive thing for us.
"As we were driving up from England, we’d just got north of the border when the First Minister announced restrictions were being relaxed. When Phillip told the cast there were tears because this is our home. This show was created for Edinburgh, Edinburgh is the heart of Scotland, and we are so thankful to have brought the beat back into the heart of the city."
Phillip and Carol Gandey created The Lady Boys of Bangkok for the 1998 Edinburgh Festival with a cast of just six - it ran as a small sideshow alongside his main tent, which housed the Chinese State Circus. Today, the show has a cast of 16 Lady Boys, all male Thai nationals. Each tour starts at the end of February/beginning of March and travels through until the end of November when they returns to Bangkok. After a break, the following year's production goes into rehearsal in the second week in January. That didn’t happen in 2020.
"Daniel Todd, our choreographer, Jose Lorenzo, our lighting designer, who also does the Strictly Come Dancing tours, and Phillip put together a new show each year," explains Beaumont, adding that 400 new costumes are made for each production.
"Literally a week before they were due to fly back to the UK in 2020 we made the decision to postpone the first UK venue. As the pandemic took hold we couldn't fly them in at all. We planned 27 different tour options but by last August it was clear the UK wasn't going to happen. Eventually we made the decision that we had to get to the Brighton Festival, which was delayed until June this year, all the time with the intention of getting to Edinburgh, the central part of the tour.
"We play to 75 per cent local people here, our audience are the people of the city. It's our adopted home, the show was created here and belongs here and Edinburgh is the only place where we do a specific finale just for the city."
The Lady Boys themselves are all aged from early-20s to mid-30s. Many have been in the show for 15 years or more and many have family to support back home in Thailand, which made it all the more urgent to get the tour back on the road, says Beaumont, revealing they have a couple of new company members this year.
"Usually, we'll find we have one cast member retiring or taking a year out after a tour and when that happens we normally get 20 people auditioning for that one spot - they are all professionally trained dancers, not just people who turn up to audition, they're the best of the best."
Regulars might also notice the Lady Boys have a brand new tent this year, or, as the tour manager puts it, "a new tensile structure, specially made in Italy."
The nature of the structure ensures surrounding businesses will not be inconvenienced by noise from the venue.
He elaborates, "This tent has an acoustically balanced floor. Basically, the floor consists of boards which are raised off the ground creating an air pocket that ensures the sound doesn't travel. The speakers are all directional and point downwards, so the sound hits the floor, which dampens it, and then disperses it like a vortex back into the room, preventing the travel of noise. We also monitor all the ambient sound levels.”
He continues, "We have spent three years talking to The Sheraton Hotel and surrounding businesses and with the Council to see how we could make this work and get the support of our neighbours. We hope that after this year, if everyone is happy, this will be our new home. It's the Council's decision at the end of the day, but that's what we hope."
Beaumont also believes the company's environmental ethic, driven Gandey himself, is far ahead of many other festival producers and something they should follow.
He says, "We were the first show to do souvenir cups which people can take home for £2. By doing and not using any plastic in our food packaging we have cut our plastic waste by 70 per cent. We also offset our carbon footprint; we have a woodland farm in Cheshire where we plant trees and we keep bees in two natural meadows. We also try to do our bit by not running generators and recycling cooking oil from our snacks. We strongly believe we are leaders in this at the festival."
The new production is also Covid safe, says Beaumont, aware many people are not yet overly confident about mixing in large numbers.
"We decided that our 4pm show is going to remain socially distanced with a capacity of just 200 for those who don't feel comfortable being part of a larger audience," he reveals, adding, "Also, at the 6.30pm and 8.30pm shows we are not going to go to full capacity. We are going to 400, instead of our normal 600. We also have an air system, the blowers have just come on; one blows air into the tent while the one on the other side sucks it out, so the air is constantly being changed.
"Between shows the tent has a deep clean and we have temperature checks on arrival. We've also changed the way we do audience participation and the cast take two Covid tests a week. We are doing everything we can to ensure we are not only Covid compliant but going over and above what is required to get people out and into the city centre."
That audience arriving today is massively mixed as a quick glance at the fast filling venue reveals.
"Look around us now, those women there have dragged their husbands along and they don't want to be here," Beaumont laughs, "but I'll guarantee you that half way through the show they'll be up and dancing because suddenly it's a celebration of everything we've been missing - it's cheeky and funny. That’s the thing about Edinburgh audiences, they don't wear rose-tinted glasses but they are open to new experiences."
Those experiences will come courtesy of the 16 male Lady Boys, although as they take to the stage, it is sometimes hard to tell if the odd female hasn’t sneaked on stage with them.
"Every single one is a male Thai national, on passport," says Beaumont, "They are 16 of the most beautiful, glamorous showgirls you will ever see but they just happen to be men. People leave saying they will never look at the opposite sex in the same way again. They just can't believe what they are seeing."
The Lady Boys of Bangkok run until August 29, tickets from 0870 705 5555