outspoken | 

Matthew Cavan hanging up drag queen heels to go back to acting roots

The Carrick actor is known for his drag role as ‘Cherrie Ontop’

Matthew Cavan, left, wtih Celia Graham and Sean Kearns

Matthew Cavan

Matthew Cavan as 'Cherrie Ontop'

Roisin GormanSunday World

Actor Matthew Cavan is hanging up his drag queen heels but Cherrie Ontop will finish with a flourish.

After a decade under the best wig in the business, he’s going back to his acting roots with a role in Propaganda: A New Musical at the Lyric.

But Cherrie isn’t going quietly, and she’ll be the centre of attention in a play based on Matthew’s life next year, after she takes part in children’s story time events this Christmas and panto Aladdin at the Waterfront Hall.

The 33-year-old from Carrickfergus says his drag queen role got him back on stage after the shock of his HIV diagnosis in 2009.

When he made documentary Cherrie, Me and HIV, Matthew revealed the online abuse he’d endured for his activism about the virus, which sparked the idea for the new show. It will be part of the Children’s Art Festival in March.

“Replay Theatre Company saw that and thought this was something young people need to know. It’s the culmination of a lot of my advocacy work around HIV, based on my lived experience with drag and HIV and dealing with a lot of online hatred,” says Matthew.

“I have been able to take my trauma and create art from it.

“It feels a little bit like ‘look at me, I have a musical,’ but why shouldn’t it be ‘look at me, I have a musical?’

“Replay have already received emails about it, but people who have a major issue with it already have a major issue with a drag queen who has HIV who is outspoken.”

Matthew Cavan as 'Cherrie Ontop'

Matthew enjoyed a ten-year residency as Cherrie at Belfast’s Cabaret Supper Club which finished in February, and while he loves her, he wants to focus on acting roles. His drag queen income supported his theatre career, but it also took up a lot of his time.

“Cherrie has been my waitering job, and she helped me get back on stage after my HIV diagnosis,” he says.

“I love drag but my art form is theatre and I want to focus on Matt the actor.

“I’ve given ten years of my life to drag and so much of my time was taken up by it when I should have been doing auditions or self-tapes.

“I’ll always have the skills I learned, and corporate gigs paid really well, but drag over the past year became painful for me when I was doing my job, and I just think my time is best served within theatre.”

Matthew was targeted by former TUV councillor Jolene Bunting after a children’s story time event at the Mac in July. She breached a court order on the immediate removal of an online video about him, and narrowly avoided a jail sentence when she received a four-month conditional discharge.

This week, the actor will take to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Propaganda from composer and dramatist Conor Mitchell. The pair previously worked together on Ten Plagues and Abomination: A DUP Opera.

He plays Gerhardt, stuck in Berlin in 1949, who’s working for the Soviets to survive, a gay man who’s forced to hide his sexuality. He shares a claustrophobic apartment with a couple who are desperate to escape to Cuba and sell porn pictures and cigarettes to American GIs to make money.

Matthew Cavan

“He’s never got to experience being an openly gay man. He couldn’t be open because he would have died. When the concentration camps were liberated the gay men, who had to wear pink triangles, were sent to prison,” says Matthew.

“I’m used to playing nice characters but he’s touting left, right and centre. This is after World War II and niceness has gone out the window. The nice people who stood up for the Jews or gay people would have been killed.

“Conor has created this love story which is really dark and absolutely hilarious.”

Matthew says it’s a joy to be working with the composer again.

“I genuinely believe the man is a genius. It’s like being in the orbit of a superstar and it’s the best experience of my life.”

He has high hopes that Abomination will return to the stage after it became a huge hit.

Conor took transcripts of DUP politicians’ remarks about the gay community and set them to a dramatic operatic score.

Matthew spent weeks reading the transcripts of DUP statements about the gay community, including the branding of Aids as God’s curse, and says he almost became physically ill at the bile directed at gay men.

“There were three gay men in the cast and we all lived through hell because of those people, so to be able to reclaim all those things and get a five-star review in The Guardian and do ten days in the Abbey in Dublin and perform in the national theatre of Northern Ireland was amazing.

“Hopefully it has legs. I’d love it to go to London and play somewhere near the Houses of Parliament,” he says.

  • Propaganda: A New Musical runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from October 8 – November 5.


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