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Drag duo who stage shows in Bury St Edmunds and Diss tell of pride at their career success

June was global Pride Month and right in the forefront of celebrations in East Anglia - dressed to the nines and having a fabulous time - were Matt Sqaunce and Lauren Bryant.

Stupendous costumes, dramatic makeup, and a big helping of attitude transform Lauren and Matt into Will Power and Knuckle Sandwich.

In the world of drag kings and queens they are flying high with their double act NOW! That’s What I Call … DRAG!

The duo with co-stars at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Misha Jayne Photography
The duo with co-stars at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Misha Jayne Photography

And during Pride the duo, who also perform regularly in clubs and other venues, were in demand at events all over the region including Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge.

They teamed up professionally after meeting online in lockdown. The first time they met in person at an event the spark was instant.

“Proud Mary by Tina Turner came on and we were just running up and down the car park shouting. It was 2pm on a Saturday and no alcohol was involved,” says Lauren.

Lauren Bryant (Will Power) and Matt Squance (Knuckle Sandwich) in Bury St Edmunds where they often perform at the Hunter Club
Lauren Bryant (Will Power) and Matt Squance (Knuckle Sandwich) in Bury St Edmunds where they often perform at the Hunter Club

Matt says: “We realised we had a real chemistry when it came to performing. We started working together loads and then we dreamed a little bigger.”

Two irrepressible personalities with a love of anything slightly - or not so slightly - bonkers proved a magic combination.

“We started doing a lot of work together in 2022. Our first venue was the Hunter Club in Bury. It had the facilities we needed and knew people who had performed there.” he said.

Will Power and Knuckle Sandwich in their double act NOW! That’s What I Call … DRAG!
Will Power and Knuckle Sandwich in their double act NOW! That’s What I Call … DRAG!

The club took a leap of faith on an unknown act but it was a sellout. “They didn’t have a clue what we were going to do, but we were really confident it was going to work. The first show sold out a month in advance.”

That set the pattern. Tickets are snapped up for all their shows at least a couple of weeks beforehand.

Drag has surged in popularity in recent years partly driven by shows like the TV hit Ru Paul’s Drag Race which brought it into the mainstream.

Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power line up with other performers
Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power line up with other performers

They say the show created the zeitgeist but could do better at representing the whole picture, because it reinforces the perception that drag only means men dressing as women,

“It does inform the public view of what drag is,” Lauren adds, “and that has made my life difficult. I’m lucky I’m at the point where I work regularly, but there is a naivety with people about what drag is

“I’d say there are probably not quite as many drag kings as drag queens, and less kings are able to succeed because there is not the infrastructure to support them honing their craft. There is no king representation on TV to give them inspiration.”

Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power backstage at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Misha Jayne Photography
Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power backstage at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Misha Jayne Photography

That is not the case with their shows - 50 percent of which are king-led, and are packed with comedy, live vocals, stand up, and moments of chaos, madness, and creativity.

“Getting to do it on a mainstream level means that for people who might not know drag kings existed I’m there in their face and on stage all the time. I’ve had people come to shows who’ve gone on to become kings,” she says.

Matt, who recently got a first in drama and creative writing from the UEA, was working as an actor and scriptwriter before starting to do drag and still pursues both careers.

A Halloween show. Picture: James Burton Photography
A Halloween show. Picture: James Burton Photography

So why on earth would an almost-impossibly glamorous drag queen want to be known by the slang term for a punch in the mouth?

“I was born in Essex and we were surrounded by what I’d call ‘geezers’ and when I heard the phrase I always found it funny although it’s inherently violent,” he says.

“I felt good putting the name which is so macho and aggressive onto someone so glamorous and feminine. But there is more to it than that - because I’m very feisty and she does pack a punch. Also it’s a name you won’t forget and I knew no-one else would be silly enough to pick it!”

Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power on stage. Picture: Matthew Brown Photography.
Knuckle Sandwich and Will Power on stage. Picture: Matthew Brown Photography.

His family later moved to Newmarket which is where he grew up. “I went to St Felix Middle School, then Bottisham Village College, and Hills Road in Cambridge for A Levels.

Before he came out he didn’t find life easy in a town dominated by racing. “I did feel quite alone in a town driven by one industry - for a teenager with a love of the performing arts, that didn’t allow me to thrive.

“I think it took me until I was 14 for me to think this is who I am - queer - and I came out when I was 18. When you do come out you can start to really live your life,” said Matt who worked for a local art supplier while also writing plays and acting in shows

His first drag performance was in 2019 in a competition at a Norwich club. ”I thought why not? If I don’t do it now I will never do it, and I won,” he recalls. “So I then tried to find my path in the scene.”

He says his drag career has taken him into a different world, and his work isn't really spoken about when he is with his family. "My younger sister is supportive and has been to see me perform, but my parents haven't seen me as Knuckle," he says.

Matt, who is now based in Norfolk where he lives with his partner, mostly sources his exotic costumes online, although charity shops and Vinted can also be good for an eye-catching outfit. “At home I have a whole room packed with costumes. There used to be a spare bed in there but that’s gone now.

“I wear anything I feel gorgeous in. I love colour and something that has movement and shape. Recently I’ve been wearing a rainbow bodysuit, and a gorgeous jumpsuit with big shoulders and really loud print - quite 1990s.”

Lauren - who is Norfolk born and still lives in the county - made her first-ever outing as Will Power at Norwich Pride in 2019.

But her early ambition was to act, and she feels she has made it as a performer despite discouragement and hurtful remarks.

“I’ve always loved musical theatre. I did after school drama clubs when I was 11 and that grew and grew. I was adamant I wanted to be an actor, and did a foundation course in London.”

She won a place to do a degree at the renowned Rose Bruford College, but realised it wasn’t working for her and left, just before lockdown.

“I was told in sixth form I wouldn’t be a performer,” she says. “Then I was told at drama school you won’t do it if you don’t do a degree. Then after that ‘you won’t do it if you don’t get an agent’.

“I was told horrible things like I wasn’t conventionally attractive and would ‘never play Juliet’. So I forged my own path despite that. I thought if I won’t be a leading lady I’ll be a leading man.

“In lockdown I was living with my mum and brother and I would wait until everyone went to bed and then start putting makeup on my face and making videos.

“I would watch drag on U-Tube. And I was still watching musical theatre - my favourites include The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

“I chose my name because I always used to say I don’t have any willpower.

“I feel that the character has come such a long way from when I started, and I feel like Will Power. I like to take up space. I like to be loud.

“I feel as a woman we don’t get to do that or command rooms. It has given me confidence in myself … if Will can do it so can Lauren.

“I’ve always been mouthy and a bit odd. I was always loud about things people could consider cringe like musical theatre, and sci-fi.” Matt adds: “All my life I’ve been told I’m loud, so that’s something we have in common!”

They did multiple shows at Cambridge Pride, including hosting, and were thrilled by how many young people wanted to meet them, and the amount of families there.

“It was a career high for us,” said Matt. ”I can’t describe how special it is to do Prides because it’s that one time of the year where people can come together and be themselves.

“When we perform we know the start line and the finish line but how we get there is different every time. We trust each other enough to go off the cuff. We like interacting with the audience, poking fun at ourselves.

“I’m often told you should move to London if you want to succeed. We’re living proof that London isn’t the be all and end all.

“Everyone is welcome at our shows. We have a really lovely core group particularly in Bury that come to every show and are always at the front.. Everyone is there for a good time. I just want to fill the room with love and enjoyment.

Their next Bury show is at the Hunter Club on August 10 with Drag Race star Choriza May making a guest appearance.

Hosting shows means being very switched on to the audience, keeping the crowd ‘up there’ between acts.

“You have to have your antennae working out what the crowd needs,” says Lauren. “We’re quite silly, inviting the audience to play. The more comfortable they feel at the start of the show the better.”

Having fought their own way up the ladder one of their priorities is helping those just starting their careers. “We’ve now employed more than 100 drag artists. There is always space in our shows for new people to come into the fold,” Matt says.

“It was hard when we started out. There are more opportunities now, but also more people wanting to do it.”

“We work with people we take under our wing when they’re new, and it’s good to see them hone their craft and to want to come back and work with us” said Lauren. “We talk about our show every day and come up with new material constantly, which is good because it pushes us.

“A lot of people rely on us as employers, and there’s also our responsibility to the audience. I say what we do isn’t serious, but we take it really seriously. My family are at nearly every show. They're very supportive and they love it.”

But performers like Matt and Lauren can also face negative reactions or outright hostility. “At Suffolk Pride in Ipswich in 2022 I had eggs thrown at me,” she said. “If I have to travel somewhere in full costume I won’t get out of the car until I get to the venue.”

Matt adds: “I’ve had all sorts of things shouted at me. Some of the recent press there has been against drag and trans people has given ignorant people a free run to say what they want and be as horrible and mean as they want, without realising the damage they cause,

“I will stand up for myself, but as much as you feel you have the right to do that, it’s a fine line. I grew up terrified of coming out. But it’s empowerment. You can live your life in whatever way makes you happy. Inclusion should mean accepting everyone for their differences.”