An Ode To The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

By Elf Lyons Last edited 8 months ago
An Ode To The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

Comedian Elf Lyons discusses her love for London's best loved LGBT+ pub, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

Image: RVT Facebook page

Before London my experience of 'clubs' was pretty abhorrent. Sticky floors. Sticky ceilings. Sticky people. That weird guy who stands behind you and thrusts for no explicable reason. Music that sounds like you've been kidnapped by a cacophonous clan of German New Wave builders. Too many people. Too much hype. A place where everyone grinds, eyes closed, existential, questioning the point of it all — all while downing litres of vodka. Hell, basically. I concluded clubs were not for me, and retired to a Friday night life of Spotify and BBC iPlayer in my pyjamas.

RVT regulars The LipSinkers

Then I moved to London and discovered the queer scene. As a fresh-faced member of the LGBT+ community, I adored discovering these spaces around the city — being introduced to the safety and charm of venues such as the Black Cap in Camden [currently closed] and The Glory in Haggerston, among others. And then, in 2014, I discovered the Royal Vauxhall Tavern — one of my main reasons for staying south of the river.

It brings to mind the inner workings of a carousel: high beams, red and gold interior, decorated with the bright dancing movements of the disco lights above

A veritable carousel of entertainment

When you enter the Royal Vauxhall Tavern it brings to mind the inner workings of a carousel: high beams, red and gold interior, decorated with the bright dancing movements of the disco lights above and the oscillating gaggle of the great and the good in sweaty gay abandon below. It overlooks Vauxhall station like a big gay Victorian kingpin. Despite how busy the RVT can get, with queues bending all around the building, one wouldn't describe it as 'packed', because 'packed' suggests discomfort. Even at the busiest of times, you only ever feel cuddled at the RVT. Surrounded by other ecstatic limbs as you dance to The Readers Wives, the friendly RVT disco overlords. As performer, Trick Valentine, says, "There's no such thing as a bad night at the RVT. It's absolutely smashing."

The author, on a hazy night out at the RVT

My first visit was on a class trip with fellow MA Theatre & Performance peers from Queen Mary University. We turned up early, welcomed by the 'door whores' in their masks and exuberant tailoring. We saw our lecturers, we saw Amy Lamé, and we watched the performers. We danced until closing. As I danced on stage with my friends, in a tiny dress (too revealing for me) a group of men shouted "BE CONFIDENT! YOU LOOK GREAT BABE!". It seemed to sum up the supportive attitude of the venue.

Everyone has their own fond early memories of the place. "I first went to the Vauxhall Tavern in the 90s," says Karen Fisher, performer and organiser of King of Clubs at the RVT.

"There was a women-only night there every Friday for years called Vixens. The only man allowed in was Jason, who is now the manager. The night always ended with us all up on the stage dancing to DJ MC Dri-weave. Often topless, or was that just me? They were the best times."

The night always ended with us all up on the stage dancing to DJ MC Dri-weave. Often topless, or was that just me?

The RVT is the birthplace for a lot of alternative queer talent. There is some beautiful footage of various drag queens jigging on the bar in the 1960s, and the most dynamic artists in the UK have performed on that beautiful mini moon stage. In Christmas 2016 I watched Lucy McCormick come on stage and perform what would eventually culminate into her five star sell out debauched re-enactment of the new testament, Triple Threat. At the time, it was just an idea, and now it is sell-out, world-renowned theatre show.

Marc Gooderham's beautiful painting of the RVT. Image: the RVT website

Having watched so much comedy, drag and live art at the RVT, in 2016 the opportunity to do the Duckie Homosexualist Summer School under the mentorship of Ursula Martinez was too good to miss. Getting on to the course was amazing and those weeks I had were some of the most crucial in my development as a performer. All of us who did DHSS in 2016 have gone on to do incredible things, performing all around the UK and world — developing our individual work.

It showcases an often overlooked part of London's character — it is kind.

Ursula opened us up to a world of performing that I had lost contact with since graduating from university. Alongside developing my bouffon character The Matron, (which I still perform now around the country at various LGBT+ events), my interaction with fellow performers and drag acts enhanced my understanding of the inequalities in the London performing arts scene. This directly led to me standing to be a member of the trade union Equity's LGBT+ committee, to help improve and make changes within the performing arts industry for LGBT+ creative workers.

A still from What's a Girl Like You... a 1969 documentary about drag acts at the RVT

Whatever your reason; depressed, bored, free evening, you need to get out of the house, you want to meet someone new, or see something exciting; you want to have fun; you want to be silly, etc, etc — heading to the RVT is ideal. There is always something on, something unexpected, and crucially, it showcases an often overlooked part of London's character — it is kind. It embodies the actual concept of a 'safe space'. It's a bright red, sparkly, camp womb. Full of men with well cared for beards, nice glasses and swaggering hip movements. It's a cocktail of the eccentric untouchables who make London such a wonderful city to live in.

It's a bright red, sparkly, camp womb. Full of men with well cared for beards, nice glasses and swaggering hip movements.

With current criticisms about the splits within the LGBT+ community, I think the RVT can serve as a fantastic example of the open doors policy of our city and our community. You're all welcome, creed, colour, politics, background. If you wanna dance and you want to have fun and you are open minded, then this is the venue to go to.

The Big Bingo Show

The RVT's history and the mark it has made on queer history in the UK is staggering. Every time I go in, I feel lucky to be able to experience an evening there. It's more than just a pub, more than just a great night out.  RVT performer, Loui von Dini explains, "I guess the first word that comes to mind when I think of the RVT is 'home'. I find it to be a place of acceptance and community.

"As a performer when I walk onstage, it just feels like the audience is giving me a huge hug."

With so many queer venues slowly disappearing and being replaced by new builds, private housing or indeed, a Pret, the RVT stands as London's gay liberal oligarch. Let us pray that it remains.

What's the best night you spent at the RVT? Tell us in the comments.

Last Updated 23 February 2018