It’s a very full, familiar house in the Q Theatre Loft for the opening night of She’s Crowning: Rebirth. There’s a spark to the room, no doubt owing in part to it being the first weekend of Auckland Pride. It’s a permeating, generalised excitement. I look around and find years of my own social and professional histories colliding. There are free packets of Oreos placed carefully on every seat. (They’re mini Oreos, specifically, which delights the award-winning chef in the row behind me: it’s the perfect cookie-to-filling ratio. Good to know. I’ll take that insight.)
Before the show begins, I take a look at the set. It’s a definite spatial upscale from the Basement Studio, where the first season of She’s Crowning was performed. The arrangement is wider, but relatively similar: two glinting tinsel foil curtains, a plain sheet hung centrally to accommodate silhouettes and projection. There are new structural additions, including two racks of clothing.
Then the lights go down, and the soundtrack begins. It’s The Crown. And then it’s The White Lotus. Then there’s Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II and Tyra Banks and Jennifer Coolidge again and so, so many more. (It’s a smart opening gambit: an immediate tonal indicator, a hint to She’s Crowning: Rebirth’s commitment to remaining up to date, and a way to get the audience on side in seconds—as we’ve heard from Las Culturistas time and time again, shared references bring people together like nothing else.)
Performers Peter Burman and Murdoch Keane are a perfect double act. It’s a rare partnership of deeply aligned sensibilities, compatible essences, and well-honed skill sets spread just right across a Venn diagram to make the overall product stronger. Directed by Rongopai Tickell, another Toi Whakaari alum, Burman and Keane move through accents, eras, characters, characters-as-characters, characters-as-a-litany-of-pop-cultural-touchstones, physical comedy, the borderline defamatory, one seemingly endless list (excellent), and an early-doors take on Ibble Dibble that any ‘I’m not really a singer, so I’m going to do a rap for my verse’ Drag Race contestant would dream of writing. They lean fully into every moment, willing to forsake what is correct for what is ridiculous—deployed artfully to maximise comedy, a skill in itself—and leave us screaming, laughing, clutching each other. It’s unrelenting, go-for-broke, not for the faint of heart. There’s a specific alchemy that in many ways works because it’s Burman and Keane.
“It’s a rare partnership of deeply aligned sensibilities, compatible essences, and well-honed skill sets spread just right across a Venn diagram to make the overall product stronger.”
There’s also a degree of dramaturgical maturity that must be remarked upon: for all the lengths She’s Crowning: Rebirth goes to to leave the audience squirming, the company stops firmly short of letting them become the butt of the joke. This is particularly true in a winningly-repurposed cameo from—you guessed it, darling—Beatrice and Eugenie, who pluck a “secondhand virgin” sacrifice from the audience in order to revive a dead queen. Complete with an incredible Hillary Clinton sight gag, this moment of direct audience participation (and metatheatrical acknowledgement of the show’s sponsors) is a masterclass in allaying nerves. The instructions are clear; the content is provided; the routine is kept tight and efficient.
There are instances of audience ribbing throughout the hour, but also these gestures of warmth: Burman’s Prince Philip (recipient of a later rip diva xo) forgoes the lap he has joked about seeking and instead finds an empty seat, keeping the action moving and beaming, “oh, free Oreos!” to those around him. Likewise, as the sacrificed audience member is guided carefully back to their seat, I find myself thinking: huh. They really are doing the work to ensure we’re held. No matter how far this show pushes its content, it takes care of its audience. As far as Burman and Keane are willing to go for the gag—and trust me, on a first viewing, it’s probably further than you think—they remain consummate professionals. It’s a safe night out for firm fourth wall fans.
What intrigues me most about a show like She’s Crowning: Rebirth is its potential to continue being reborn. Having seen the season at Basement last year, I can’t help comparing the two as I’m watching: what has been cut, what exists in its place, how the company has shifted in response to the greatest hits of the recent royal news cycle. Some of what reappears is a delightful surprise: one unexpected full-chest ‘bisexual’ joke from Keane gets me again anew; Greta Thunberg’s cameo is reformatted but played gloriously absurd-grounded by Burman.
And then there is the more expected subject matter: Spare gets a feature; the death of the Queen produces a series of between-scenes vignettes of Burman and Keane, talking as they get changed about their early experiences of Elizabeth II. This feels like an expansion of conversations that may have come up in rehearsals, but is ultimately a welcome touch—it continues to highlight the interrogation of our relationship with the Crown (beyond The Crown) in Aotearoa New Zealand, which was honed in on in the previous performance season by a punctuative, dramaturgically necessary ending. The ending of Rebirth is similarly striking, but its makeup is entirely new—at once a confronting ‘eat the rich’ moment and, as a friend points out to me later, a cheeky acknowledgement of our continued cultural interest in the royals, and the fact that we keep on ‘eating it all up’.
I’m intrigued to see how the show would play elsewhere, for the no-holds-barred nature of it. If it could go on the same, say, in Edinburgh—or if audiences here are uniquely positioned for the work. Regardless, Burman and Keane, in collaboration with Tickell, are electric. I hope, in many ways, She keeps Crowning. I’d love to see this show rebirthed again and again and again.
Featured photo courtesy of Auckland Pride Festival 2023.