Franco Milazzo

From his first experience of cabaret in a converted toilet off The Strand, Franco knew he was seeing a revolution that would not –- could not -– be televised. He created the web’s favourite cabaret recommendations column at Londonist.com and, when not gadding about town like a dark, swarthy Sicilian stereotype, he will be spreading the love about the UK’s kookiest and kinkiest entertainment scene.

Fancy Chance Says: “Fight The Power!”

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Fancy Chance is in fighting mood in her latest Soho Theatre show. Image: Sin Bozkurt.
Fancy Chance is in fighting mood in her latest Soho Theatre show. Image: Sin Bozkurt.

The times, they are a-changing. A year on from the Brexit referendum and nearly 100 days since Donald Trump became President, the political landscape in both the US and the UK is unrecognisable from where it was just twelve months ago. Who better to reflect on this fresh hell than Fancy Chance?

The performer has never had it easy: her birth mother abandoned her in 1974 and, despite twice looking for her, Fancy Chance has never found the woman who left her in a bag outside a South Korean police station. She spent her childhood in the US before moving on again, this time to the UK where she has developed a legendary career in cabaret. When not hanging by her hair for the Double R Club and Café de Paris’ Seven Sins, she is widely renowned for her ability to fluidly move between the worlds of burlesque, drag and performance art.

Next week, she appears in her own show. Flights of Fancy is her very personal take on many issues recently thrown up on both sides of the Atlantic, not least race and immigration. We spoke to her about what she thought about where the world was going.


Last year I did a third version of my solo show Flights of Fancy at the Soho Theatre for a couple nights. It was two days before the Brexit vote and four months before the latest U.S. election.

As I’ve spent more time on this planet, I can safely say that I’m never surprised but can often be disappointed.  The outcome of the referendum in the UK to leave the EU and Trump being elected as the US president (along with the Republicans owning our asses) has left me disappointed but also hopeful because people have been shaken into action including myself.

At first, after both results came in, I was shell shocked, depressed and anxious.  The hubris of the powers that were was astounding.  Why the hell were “IN” stickers being passed out in the London borough of Hackney who had the highest percentage of “remain” votes?  Where the hell were they in all the bloody places hardly touched by immigrants but benefitting from EU initiatives?  Why did the US democratic party think that someone was a shoe-in just because they weren’t a pussy grabbing rich fuck who “wins bigly”?



Fancy Chance taking to the air at the Double R Club’s London Wonderground show.


After this cluster of suck right wing voting happened, the subjects and themes of my show took on a different urgency. I’ve been an immigrant twice: once practically under the circumstances of being a refugee, and the other because of marriage. I think because of this and also being a minority and a woman, it’s made me more aware of the politics swirling around us and has changed and shaped what I’ve ended up creating and participating with on stage.

A theme that keeps coming back to me is empathy and compassion. I collaborated with Nathan Evans (my director and collaborator for Flights Of Fancy) for his production of I Love You But We Only have 14 Minutes to Save the Earth. The idea was that a number of performers created a 14 minute act on how or what would save the earth. For my piece I thought, if people would just take a moment to consider the people around them, we wouldn’t be in this fear-mongered shit storm flowing to the right. The only power I have is to air out my complaints on stage but also, 14 Minutes really let me sink my teeth into also making arguments for solutions.

Who am I if I think people who voted for Brexit or Trump are complete xenophobic idiot racist assholes? My conversation with half of humanity stops there.  Also, I have to ask myself, what more can I do to affect change? I have to be tricky with my satire and but, at the same time, bold and unafraid of my truths and my past to make my complaints and urgings potent.

In Flights of Fancy I get to have a conversation with the audience about my personal history and present my opinions on beauty standards, casual racism, ethnic identity, sex work, immigration, social media, gentrification and finding love and family in this ever changing and at times alienating world. I hope it’s wrapped in a bow that moves people to think about the world and the humans around them and leaves them with a few giggles in their bellies and conversations to revisit.

Fight the power!
Be bold!
Be kind!

This is not easy.  None of this is easy in these times.

Flights Of Fancy will be at the Soho Theatre from 25-29 April. More information can be found on the venue website.

Will The Enduring Wonder Of Cirque Du Soleil Last Forever?  

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When you think there is nothing left for Cirque du Soleil to amaze us with, they come up with something newer, fresher, more death-defying and more artistic. They have been doing it for 33 years now so we shouldn’t be surprised at the depths and wonder of their collective imaginations, but some critics have watched their latest show and asked whether their creative pool has run dry?

Amaluna has returned to the Royal Albert Hall for a second run, until the end of February 2017. It first played to sell out crowds last year, and the two and a half hour spectacular, loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is still packing them in. The show contains the usual range of circus disciplines, elaborate costumes and visual artistry, but some reviews have described a ‘tried and tested formula’ and the new show being ‘conceptually bland’ despite the addition of two new acts compared to the 2016 version.

Cirque du Soleil’s 33rd production is a unique gathering of artistes from around the world and the stunning mix of balance, dexterity, nerve, athleticism and contortion on display is certainly receiving few complaints from audiences. Packed houses are still dropping jaws at the drama, suspense and sheer theatre of the spectacle before them, and the sweeping majesty of the Royal Albert Hall is certainly a fitting backdrop to Cirque du Soleil’s dazzling show.

The Canadian entertainment company were formed in Montreal in 1980, and with the aid of Government grants managed to create their first show, Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil in 1984. Its success secured a second year of funding and they have never looked back.

Today they are the largest theatrical producer in the world, employing over 5,000 people but staying true to a collective work ethic, whereby all the performers help with props and changing sets rather than using stagehands. Of the 33 individual shows that have stunned audiences all over the world, 18 of them are still active now and are either touring or taking up a residency somewhere. The company has toured every continent and plays to 9,000 people per night in a Las Vegas run it has maintained since 1993. They also have a residency at Disneyland in Florida and have performed at the Oscars ceremony twice, in 2002 and ten years later in 2012.

With other circus performers pushing the boundaries of contemporary circus all the time, it is true that Cirque du Soleil need to innovate to stay ahead of a game they have lead since forming in 1980. Can they find new ways to balance, swing, jump, throw and catch? Innovation has always been at the heart of Cirque du Soleil’s principles, along with comedy and a non-traditional approach to the circus and what people expect.  History suggests they can re-invent themselves again, take that ‘tried and tested formula’, spin it on its head and come back with something you couldn’t predict and couldn’t even describe, and we are more than willing to give them the opportunity.

Tickets for Cirque du Soleil can be booked today at BoxOffice.co.uk

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Scott Alan: “My Music Comes From A Place Of Being OK With Not Being OK”

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Musical theatre star Scott Alan will return to the stage of Brasserie Zedel for the first time in over a year, when he performs in the debut of his show, The Journey: My Story Through Music

His one man musical tackles themes of depression, mental health, sexuality and sexual abuse in an honest and unedited fashion. The award-winning songwriter tells his own story through over a dozen new and established songs. The Journey charts the writer’s story through sexual awakening and battles with physical and mental health. Using his piano, voice and spontaneous sense of humour, Scott cuts through difficult stories with a musical note of unsentimental levity and empathy.

We caught up with him to ask him about the new musical and how his mental health has affected his work and life.


Some of your songs have been triggered by personal events, for example, your first “successful” song Kiss The Air three days which you wrote days after your parents separated.  Has there been anything this year which has caused to immediately set to writing?

The biggest change in my life was the passing of my dog, Billy Lucas Alan. We had been together for 14 1/2 years and to not have him in my life has left a huge empty paw print in my home. His death really pushed forward a lot of the new songs that are in The Journey but if I had the choice between him and the new material, I’d give back the songs.

 

You have an honest and refreshing approaching to your art form in that you’ve written songs and spoken about your clinical depression before and talked about how you see your music as therapy. How much do you feel the ups and downs of your mental health influences your life as a professional artist? Have changes in medication affected your songwriting style or output?

I always say that I’m who I am today because of being diagnosed as clinically depressed during my teen years. My music comes from a place of being OK with not being OK. When I wrote Anything Worth Holding on To and saw the instant reaction to the words, I knew that sharing my life openly was the way I wanted to move forward. Thankfully, my medication hasn’t had a huge impact on my songwriting. I think it did at the beginning but I’m writing a lot lately, so seems to be a-OK.

 

You’ve been away from the stage for over a year and now you’re back with another personal show The Journey: My Story Through Music at Live At Zedel. Can you tell us more about how this show came about and what led to you writing it?

I started working on the show back in 2012. I wasn’t sure that I was wanting to work on another album of new material and so I started to sit down at my computer and think ofwhat may be next for me. It started as a simple song cycle and has expanded into anything but that.

 

If you could send a message to your 20-year-old self, would you do it in words or through a song you have written? And what would you say?

Always in a song. I’m horrible with words when not being written in front of music. As for writing to my 20-year-old self, I would say “keep doing what you’re doing.” At that age, I was heading off to Los Angeles to try a new adventure. Though I regret not graduating from college, I am proud of always being up for something new. I don’t worry too much about tomorrow. I tend to just live in the moment and I think that was the age when I really began that.

 

What advice would you hand on to other artists living with similar or related illnesses?

I just had a friend ask about antidepressants and fearing that they would make them no longer feel. As an artist, being numb to the world is scary but I think living in sadness is scarier. My advice would be to keep trying medications until you find the right one and the proper dose. It can take some time, so don’t get discouraged. If you need medication in your system, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. Life is short as is. Why continue to live it scared, alone and sad?
This has been a hell of a year in terms of celebrity deaths. Of the songwriters and musicians that have passes away over the last twelve months, which of those affected you the most?

Though he passed away prior and wasn’t a songwriter, the one I took the hardest was Robin Williams. I think anyone who suffers from depression understood where he was coming from but knowing how much of a mask he wore to make others happy when he was so self aware of his own demons, really hit home.

 

Do you ever wonder about your legacy? Have you made any plans to preserve your work for future generations (for example, donating personal items like notebooks to a musical theatre museum)?

I think of my legacy too much. I hope that what I leave behind is children and a family. Outside of that, the world can take whatever they want of mine once I’m dead.

 

You’ve worked around the world with a phenomenal number of high profile artists. Artistically, is there anything left in your bucket list? 

Oh, absolutely. So many artists still to work with. The moment you stop dreaming, you might as well be dead.

Scott Alan will be at Brasserie Zedel until Sunday 8 January. More information can be found on the official website.

Image: Ben Walsh

NoFitState Circus: “We Owe A Debt To Margaret Thatcher”

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For London’s circus fans, this is certainly a winter of content. Olivier Award winners La Soirée have pitched up in Leicester Square for another season, Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna is opening soon in the Royal Albert Hall and NoFitState are bringing their brilliant Bianco to London’s Southbank Centre almost four years after it was seen at the Roundhouse.

For Bianco, audiences and apparatus both move around inside their tent to create a dynamic and distinctive environment. The Cardiff-based crew behind the show have been going for thirty years and always strive to produce innovative and exciting circus. I asked NoFitState’s Artistic Director Tom Rack why we should go to see their latest show and where it all went right for his company.


We’re very much looking forward to seeing the new and improved Bianco. For those like me who last saw it in the Roundhouse, how would you say that Bianco has changed? And where has that change come from?

If we don’t change the show every year, we will get tired of it. And if we are tired of it, then that’s not good for the public. Every season a few people come and go in the natural way of things, new people bring a different energy and new acts and we get to shake everything up to keep it all fresh and exciting for both ourselves and the audience.

Bianco at the Roundhouse was nearly four years ago and, since the very beginning of this show’s journey, it has evolved a lot, new music, new acts, new people but it still has the same spirit and the same structure. It’s still Bianco but grown and matured with age and a lot of hard work.

 

NoFit State has reached the grand old age of 30. What would you say were the turning points for yourselves as a company? Were they down more to circumstances, strokes of luck or new ideas?

In 1995, we did our first promenade show Autogeddon and this was the first time we worked with director Firenza Guidi. It was a big but low-budget circus show in a warehouse which gave us both lots of ideas and food for thought for when we came back together in 2004 for our first touring show ImMortal.

It was the beginning of the long and close collaboration that has got us where we are today. Having said that, we also owe a debt to Mrs Thatcher and Mr Tebbit who created the enterprise allowance scheme; it allowed us to get young people off the dole figures. In those days there were no circus schools, we learnt our craft on the streets and, without their help, we wouldn’t have survived.

 

NoFitState's Artistic Director Tom Rack
NoFitState’s Artistic Director Tom Rack

 

NoFit State’s works have been described for over a decade as “no ordinary circus”. That makes for a sexy tagline but is it something that forces you to think more out of the box when it comes to devising productions?

I think when you surround yourself with extraordinary people, the only thing that is impossible is to be ordinary.

It’s not possible to keep circus people in any kind of box and everyone we work with inspires us to do something a bit different and to push at what’s possible. In these circumstances, innovation and originality are inevitable. The day we become ordinary is the day we fail.

 

Bianco has many forward-thinking concepts, not least being a dynamic promenade experience with a live band playing an original score. How are the core concepts formulated for each show? Is it wholly collaborative or does one person take the lead? Has that process changed over time?

For Bianco, the initial concepts come from Firenza who will first propose a scrapbook of ideas and images, concepts and pretexts. Then the creative team all joins in to interpret them and propose different ways they can be developed and realised.

From there, the designs and manifestations are developed and delivered and the individual artists become involved. Firenza will give them impulses or problems that they use to create the dramaturgy and chorography of their act.

Firenza very much takes the lead but it is a massive combined effort that gets it all into place.

 

A scen from Bianco by NoFit State Circus @ Big Top, Southbank Centre. Directed by Firenza Guidi. (Opening 23-11-16) ©Tristram Kenton 11/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

 

We live in austere times so why should people go out of their way to see a circus show now of all times?

Even the Romans believed in this: “two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.”

We like to think there is something for everybody in our work, it can be enjoyed and appreciated on every level by everybody. Circus can gives you thrills, lifts your spirits and make your heart race, make you feel alive. But done right it can also touch your soul and let you escape. And who doesn’t need that?

 

Please settle a bet. Is the name of your company a play on words along the lines of Moscow State Circus or something to do with the condition of the circus artists in the company?

The honest answer is both. Thirty years ago, it was about street performing, festivals and clubs and everything that went along with that. Late one night, we were trying to come up with our name and we looked at other circus names. There was Moscow State, Chinese State and the Netherlands State all working the circuit and the idea of being NoFit State made us giggle and it stuck. These days, though, the culture of the company is very different and I still like to think we are Not in a Fit State to be mainstream and our anarchist spirit is still alive and gets out now and again.

Bianco continues until 22 January 2017 on the South Bank. Tickets are £25-£39.50. More information can be found on the Southbank Centre website.

Cast pictures: Tristram Kenton

Interview: Burlesque Queen Midnite Martini On The Highs And Lows Of Her Rise To The Top

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When Midnite Martini became the highest profile burlesque performer in the world in 2014, she did it in unique style. 

Every year, the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend (BHoF) in Las Vegas awards one performer the prestigious title of Reigning Queen of Burlesque. In 2014, the South Korean-born dancer Midnite Martini took the award with an act which was very different to the more traditional acts. Her “Blue Siren” routine made superb use of her circus and aerial skills, something which literally and metaphorically elevated her above the competition’s more classically-minded contestants.

This weekend, she will be headlining Milan Extraordinaire, Italy’s first festival dedicated to burlesque and cabaret. The three-day event is produced by the founder of the Milan Burlesque School Mitzi Von Wolfgang, restaurant entrepreneur Giorgio Marchisio and top European burlesquer Cleo Viper and features many highlights from around the country and beyond.

We spoke to Midnite Martini about the challenging climb she has had to her position in burlesque royalty.


People are still talking about your winning act a year on. What was it like performing it at BHoF?

My Blue Siren act combined aerial and burlesque set to modern music. I wore a bright blue short wig and was more like a trippy anime daydream. Again, I didn’t actually think this alternative style would ever win the crown, but that’s probably why I won! I didn’t think that act really had the chance of winning, so I went out there and performed without the internal pressure. I felt the audience, the music, and performed from deep down inside.

 

Did you think that your aerial skills were a bonus when you appeared at the Burlesque Hall of Fame?

Funny enough, I never thought my “unique” style of burlesque would win at BHoF. I was very shocked when I actually won the crown. My Blue Siren act that I won with was very “neo” for what I thought BHoF wanted. I was under the impression at that time that only classic acts scored well there but, as our art form changes, so do the establishments and trends and I don’t think that is necessarily the case anymore.

 

“I’m extremely proud to be a face and voice for POC who often don’t feel seen or heard. Things like that fill my heart and soul and make me feel like I’m apart of something bigger than myself. And that is why we do it, right?”

 

I’m very honoured to be a title holder, especially with this act. I’m very proud of the fact that I am also a Performer of Color Queen and it has meant very much to have other Asian performers tell me how important it was for them to see someone that looked more like them be crowned. It gave the message that a person of Asian descent can be seen as beautiful and successful in a “Western” competition and I’m extremely proud to be a face and voice for POC who often don’t feel seen or heard. Things like that fill my heart and soul and make me feel like I’m apart of something bigger than myself. And that is why we do it, right?

 

Take us all the way back to the beginning. What first got you dancing?

I was a figure skater when I was much younger and started taking dance classes to help with my skating. Honestly, I was never that graceful as a figure skater and I really took to dancing, so after a few years I decided to hang my skates up and focus just on dancing and theatre. Soon after, I joined youth community theatre groups in addition to dance classes and that’s when I fell in love with musical theatre. I was a total “Broadway” nerd all growing up (and admittedly still today). I took as much dance and theatre as I could through school and ended up getting into what was then a pretty prestigious musical theatre programme for college.

 

I understand college was a particularly tough time for you.

In college, the musical theatre program directors were very harsh and “real” about the professional dance and theatre world. They told us all that we needed to lose weight and that it didn’t matter how much talent we had: if we didn’t have the female hourglass or the male V, we’d never be hired.

Being one of the only minorities growing up in an all-white family (I was adopted from South Korea as a baby) and living in a predominately Caucasian community, plus being female, a perfectionist, and a dancer I had already struggled with body image and self worth throughout childhood.

 

“I restricted, binged, purged, over-exercised, and became deeply depressed.”

 

After having spent most of my high school days dieting, restricting and not feeling good enough, the words from my program directors pushed me over the edge and my regular dieting and obsession with exercise turned into full blown bulimia. I restricted, binged, purged, over-exercised, and became deeply depressed.

One year later, I quit that program and transferred to a different university. There I studied psychology (which I have my degree in) and  continued to struggle with my bulimia and decided I’d never perform again.

After another year of not performing at the new university, I felt like a piece of me was missing. I wanted to start dancing again, but knew I didn’t want to go back to the traditional dance and theatre environment and yearned for a space where I could perform but keep myself healthy.

 

After all of that, how did you move into circus and burlesque? And which came first?

I found myself auditioning for a local company that combined modern dance with aerial apparatus, Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance in Boulder, Colarodo. and ended up auditioning to join their company. I had never done circus or aerial before but, at that time, the company was looking for dancers who they would then train in aerial. I had always wanted to run away and join the circus so thought here’s my chance! Thankfully I got into the company; I was just 20 years old and this was a turning point that really changed the rest of my life!

I still remember the first company rehearsal I had with them in which one of the company members brought chocolate for everyone to share. I thought to myself, “What?! Is this a trick? They eat chocolate?!” and I knew that this company was a much different environment than what I was used to. They were more concerned about health, strength, and movement quality than what you looked like or what you weighed. I mean this in the most loving way, but it seemed like the circus/aerial world was a safe place for the misfits to come together and create. I felt like I had found a community to which I could relate.

 

So how did burlesque come into the picture?

Soon after joining Frequent Flyers, I had started wondering about this thing I had heard called burlesque. Honestly, I didn’t know much about it but had a sense that maybe it was another place “misfits” like myself could thrive. I started doing my research and found that there was a burlesque troupe in Denver.

I contacted the troupe leader, Vivienne VaVoom, and told her I did aerial dance and wanted to learn more about burlesque. Vivienne invited me to come watch their next show and when I did I instantly fell in love. The burlesque show had the character and quirk of musical theatre with the acceptance of performers of different shapes and sizes. I met with Vivienne after the show and told her my story and dance background.

Now, you have to keep in mind that this was back in the day, burlesque was still quite underground and unknown in Denver, and I was able to get into burlesque performance differently than what you do now. But back then Vivienne just said, “why don’t you bring two routines and perform in our next show?” And I gladly accepted!

 

“I was always fascinated with trying to surprise the audience.”

 

I used my dance and musical theatre training, developed two routines, came down to the bar (where they snuck me in the side door as I was still only 20 at the time) and performed my very first burlesque acts. Vivienne and the troupe liked what I did, they asked me to join the troupe and I performed with them for the next several years.

From there my aim was always to try and blend my dance/circus training with burlesque as seamlessly as possible. I’m sure I didn’t always succeed in this, but what true artist ever does? But my intention was always to have the different art forms flow together and create routines that were true hybrids of striptease and air/circus dancing. I also create straight aerial and straight burlesque routines, but have become most known for my aerial burlesque fusion.

I was always fascinated with trying to surprise the audience. Show them something they’ve never seen before. Sometimes that meant experimenting with moves I could do on a folding chair (like my signature stocking removal) or deconstructing feather fans to create my original design (which I call the Midnite Finger Fans). Being innovative (or attempting to be innovative) was always something that kept me inspired and interested. So I think my style and approach to burlesque really stemmed from those two driving forces, fusion and innovation.

More recently though I’m finding that my inspiration is coming more from playing with vulnerability onstage. I’m curious and excited to see how my style continues to shift as the focus of what stirs me in performance continues to morph!


The second Milan Extraordinaire takes place on 25-27 November. For full information, check out the official website.

Why You Should Choose Trainspotting

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Choose Trainspotting. Choose the Vaults. Choose interactive theatre. Choose a dash back to the last Summer of Love. Choose a loud rave. Choose to wear earplugs (one pair of, supplied). Choose strong nudity. Choose dark humour. Choose heavy Scottish accents with no fucking subtitles. Choose an awesome soundtrack. Choose to dive into a world of drugs, sex, death and job interviews. Choose the best bits of Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel enacted with conviction and character by a cast who commit every fibre of their being to the production.

Choose moving monologues. Choose brutal banter. Choose to see the film sequel. Choose to be sat on. Choose to have a pool cue miss your head by inches. Choose to be splattered by something cold, brown and wet. Choose to engage with a ferocious experience which never lets up. Choose to hold this play up as an example of how modern theatre can powerfully mimic one of cabaret’s finest qualities: kicking the fourth wall in the scrotum and then stamping on it for good measure. Choose Trainspotting.

Choose to tell all your mates about Trainspotting because, frankly, if there is anyone who sees this and still poo-poos the very concept of another night out at the theatre, they might not be the kind of people you want as mates, you ken?

This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★★

Trainspotting continues at The Vaults until 15 January 2017. Tickets are £20-£35. More information can be found on the official Vaults website.

Image: Geraint Lewis

Review: The Ruby Dolls’ The Brides Of Bluebeard

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Doing a show about marriage is a brave move. All the statistics point to people getting hitched later in life than ever before; more and more are avoiding it altogether. Two in five marriages end in divorce while a third don’t make it past the 20th anniversary.

In The Brides Of Bluebeard, The Ruby Dolls lay out the story of not one but four marriages, albeit all to the eponymous groom. Is he an eternal romantic, some kind of masochist or is there a dark plan afoot?

The Ruby Doll’s foursome of Susanna Fiore, Jessica Sedler, Rebecca Shanks and Tara Siddall are ably aided and abetted by the musical director and accompanist Benjamin Cox and, between them, they lay out a gothic fairytale stretching across decades.

For this particular outing, each of the Dolls assumes the role of one of Bluebeard’s wives. There’s the news presenter, the hippy model, the aristocrat and the opera singer, all stylishly distinguished through dress as well as physical and vocal mannerisms. All but the latest wife have died in mysterious circumstances and Bluebeard’s latest bride is on the hunt for answers. What will the bride find? [cue violent violin screech.]

Musical harmony groups are certainly not a scarce resource in London but The Ruby Dolls are a different breed to most in the way they put together shows. As well as their own original songs, they throw in mashups and updated arrangements of old songs. They cover topics as different as the works of Berthold Brecht and their own immigrant forebears. They aren’t afraid to experiment with the theatrical format, whether that means kicking down the fourth wall or including humorous “meta” moments.

For Bluebeard, all of that is thrown in with some considerable aplomb. The songs have individual and collective appeal (a cast recording wouldn’t go amiss, hint hint). Some, like this mash-up of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love and Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, are simply touched by genius.

The live effect isn’t all it could be as Fiore’s voice gets lost in the mix but her voice is better elsewhere and, as the group’s choreographer, she finds novel and intriguing ways to physically express what is being told through song and prose.

Musically, Cox provides superlative contributions to Bluebeard and raises the quality throughout. Together with the Dolls, he has created songs which are punchy and engaging. Moreover, they come with memorable lyrics and hummable melodies, something decidedly lacking from the more recent West End musicals (Groundhog Day aside).

In telling a folk story framed in themes as old as time, the Ruby Dolls have found a refreshingly sincere and heart-touching way to connect those themes with a modern audience. As with their other shows, there is an intelligence at work here which goes far beyond the basic premise of Bluebeard. Between their thoughtful approach to music and drama and their brave and smart choices of subject, the Ruby Dolls are a marriage made in heaven.

This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★

For information on where you can catch The Ruby Dolls in action, check out their official website.

Review: La Poule Plombée, London Wonderground

La Poule Plombee, London WondergroundRead more

Sarah-Louise Young and Michael Roulston’s latest collaboration sees them give La Poule Plombée her first full show – and, still, the “frumpy pigeon” is as comically unhappy as ever. There’s no pleasing some people.

The French mistress of misery was first seen as a character in Young’s Cabaret Whore shows and here she tells stories of woe in a manner which is more likely to bring out tears of laughter than agony.

More Gallic than garlic chicken in a garlic sauce, she is now down on her luck and down to the last remaining member of her band (Roulston on keys and in character as her much-abused accompanist). Where does she go from here?

Over the course of the show, we learn how this particular pigeon came to be standing here, almost alone both on stage and in life. We hear her backstory, a litany of bad luck, bad men and being born in the shadow of “the little sparrow” Edith Piaf. The evocative lyrics of Some Men Don’t Translate, Love Is Everything and Baggage bring out the manifold reasons behind this captivating character’s situation.

To its credit, this show isn’t afraid to delve into the dark. Perfect Papa may sound like a sweet and fluffy song but it describes the kind of childhood trauma that would keep a therapist busy for years. It’s a bravura move from Young and Roulston to downshift the mood in this way and, to a large extent, it pays off.

And let’s talk about Roulston. He is one of the cabaret scene’s less well known contributors but he has had a hand in many of the highlights of recent years. You’ll not often see his name in lights but his addition to any act or show is rarely anything other than a very good thing. Take, for example, his work with Young in their Julie, Madly, Deeply, a brilliant show based around the life and works of Julie Andrews, and his work with Dusty Limits on the veteran singer and compere’s critically-acclaimed debut album Grin last year.

Roulston is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and join in the character comedy when required: as part of Meow Meow’s Feline Intimate, he plays the last few numbers in his underwear. Thankfully, La Poule Plombée, is kinder on the apparel front and hugely benefits from his chucklesome contributions as the “straight man” to the La Poule’s more deranged demeanour.

This is a different Poule than the one I first saw in 2010. There, the character was spikier and more immediate in presence with the songs packed with razor-sharp lyrics. Here’s an example of what she sounded like:

Scroll forward six years and Poule’s new incarnation is a different kind of animal. Sure, there are the recognisable outer trappings – the costume, the wig, the accent, the melancholy, the butcher’s knife – but now ol’ miseryguts is a more mature creation. The transition from her old self to her current state of being has seen her cross from character comedy to a style more akin to songbook cabaret, a genre that usually consists of cover versions and not original works.

The move is certainly a brave one and it is a shame that it is one that doesn’t quite work. As occasionally happens when crossing the road, La Poule Plombée, is hit by traffic from both directions. While Julie Madly Deeply (another songbook-style show) had classic numbers sewn into its very fabric, this show relies on songs which generally and tonally lack in variety. There’s no denying the craft in each of them but, taken as a whole, most of the songs on first hearing lack the individuality to stand out on their own.

On the other hand, what made the frumpy pigeon such a genuinely hilarious character the first time around has been spread thinly across the show. The between-song exposition is funny and the songs have their occasional laugh out loud moments but overall the numbers lend themselves more to wry smiles than writhing in the aisles. Perhaps it is down to the longer format, perhaps there is only so much that can be wrung from the concept. Whichever, the end effect leaves one satisfied but not ecstatic.

Review: Dream Play, The Vaults

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Designed to raise the big questions about love, death and the human condition, Dream Play (at the Vaults until 1 October) is a promenade immersive theatre production. Unintentionally, it raises questions about the very essence of performance and immersive theatre in general.

The five-strong crew features a couple of familiar faces. Alt-cellist Laura Moody is a stalwart of East End cabaret institution The Double R Club; she has appeared in their spectacular London Wonderground shows and won the Miss Twin Peaks award last year. Alongside her, veteran Shakespearean actor Colin Hurley has appeared in a number of recent TV shows, not least Flowers with Olivia Colman.

The cast is rounded out with three younger members in Michelle Luther, Jade Oguga and Jack Wilkinson. Between them, the quintet explore a series of dramatic sketches which are deliberately disturbing, discomfiting and discombobulating by turn. A newly-married couple bitterly argue with the only interruptions coming from a near-naked messenger. A woman in hi-viz gear sits on the loo screaming over and over for her mother. A strange classroom lesson takes places without much in the way of light or enlightenment.

Jack Wilkinson in <em>Dream Play</em> (The Vaults, until 1 October 2016).
Jack Wilkinson in Dream Play (The Vaults, until 1 October 2016).

This play is described as “after Strindberg”, referring to the iconoclastic playwright and his 1901 opus A Dream Play.  With its nods to the then-nascent movements of Expressionism and Surrealism, the Swede’s work follows the journey of Agnes, the daughter of Vedic goddess Indra.  She has come down to check out the state of humanity and slowly comes to experience the pain and suffering inherent in mortal existence. True, some scenes in Sarah Bedi’s Dream Play‘s come with a patina of naturalism but all at one point take an unexpected dive into the dark – some more literally than others. Bright lights and sharp noises are not uncommon as are the occasional lyrical insights into what it means to be alive and to be human.

The addition of Moody gives this production a welcome twist. One episode sees her cello playing pulling and twisting another character this way and that; in others, she adds discordant chords which play on and with the mind. Within the cavernous Vaults, her music takes on a life of its own.

Laura Moody in <em>Dream Play</em> (The Vaults, until 1 October 2016).
Laura Moody in Dream Play (The Vaults, until 1 October 2016).

Dream Play is not short on ideas but neither is it long on detail. Much is left to the audience to imagine and, where the acting is strongest, any number of nightmare scenarios could fit the interactions we witness.

Clowning is used but only to inexpertly signal abstract concepts – at no point is there a strong or direct sense of emotions being compelled through the mute physical action on display. This feels like a missed opportunity in a richly-scripted play which has ample room to explore storytelling in all its forms.

Like many of its scenes, Dream Play feels like a decent concept executed poorly. Where they are employed, the extreme use of noise and lights at best do little to engage and, at worst, flip the middle finger at those earnestly trying to find sense among the metaphors and metaphysics. The staging attempts to immerse the audience in the story but, where the execution is patchy or slapdash, this exposes the faults even more. Perhaps there is a more focussed play within or perhaps this is as good as it gets. Either way, this production’s tantalising premise is not one to lose sleep over.

Dream Play continues at the Vaults until 1 October 2016. Tickets are £15 (£10 concessions). More information can be found on the official Vaults website.

Images: Cesare di Giglio

Review: Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris

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Who among us has not sinned? The seven deadly sins we all know and practice were first listed by Pope Gregory The Great back in AD590 and it was he, the patron saint of musicians and singers, that decided upon the septet of lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. If you’re not sure what any of those mean, ask a musician or a singer.

In modern times, we see these sins differently. To paraphrase writer Ferdinand Mount, greed has been rebranded as retail therapy, anger is communicating your feelings, vanity is the neverending picture roll of selfies, gluttony is the religion of foodies and sloth and lust are now known as “Netflix and chill”. Hey, sinner, how you doin’?

Taking as its concept these ubiquitous vices, Seven Sins is the latest Friday night show at Café de Paris. It is dark, theatrical and thought-provoking – none of which should be taken for granted in an age when The Stage still thinks of cabaret as “light entertainment”.

Bettsie Bon Bon's take on"sloth" for Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Beth Smith
Bettsie Bon Bon’s take on”sloth” for Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Beth Smith

 

As Seven Sin’s writer, director, compere and singer, Reuben Kaye is the show’s pivotal figure and there isn’t a square inch of it that doesn’t have his particular imprint. Five years ago, the Café’s Friday night show was the stomping ground for Dusty Limits and now the baton has been passed to his fellow Australian, one who holds sway with a swagger all of his own; while the former revelled in his aloofness, Kaye takes to the audience like a heartbroken girl to white wine and boxsets.

Theatrical cabaret is a double-edged sword. The idea of a show with not only an underlying theme which connects and contextualises the acts and has some semblance of direction and a script is not novel in London, but it is increasingly rare. If done well, it can lift the spirits, transport us to another time and space and even justify eye-watering booze prices. When done badly, frankly we all wish we were elsewhere.

This is Kaye’s star vehicle but he’s happy to share his ride with a variety of fabulous folks who bring each sin to life. As the avatar of “gluttony”, sword swallower extraordinaire Snake Fervor expertly chows down on both a huge spoon and a similarly sized fork at the same time while up-and-coming circus star Beau Sargent as “envy” shows plenty of flesh and talent as he dazzles on the aerial hoop.

Burlesque is not short on queens but the UK can count Bettsie Bon Bon as one of the finest exponents around of the classic style. Aptly enough for a portrait of “sloth”, her routine starts at a luxuriously slow pace but soon zings into a zany strip which climaxes in an explosion of feathers. Likewise, Anna The Hulagan’s take on “pride” has a ponderous beginning before she brings on the crazy with the aid of two assistants wielding angle grinders.

Reuben Kaye leads a scintillating cast at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Beth Smith
Reuben Kaye leads a scintillating cast at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Beth Smith

 

One example of the theatrical chutzpah of this production is seen at the beginning of the second half. An altar with lit candles on small pedestals is solemnly approached by a young priest, dog collar and all. In a matter of moments, the candles and collar are removed, acrobat and Sins choreographer Sammy Dineen (for it is he) strips off the rest of his outfit and mounts the pedestals for a sublime display of hand balancing in the name of “lust”. Somewhere along the line, while still upside down, Dineen’s sandals are set on fire before he, um, “hotfoots” it off stage. What began as a trompe d’oeil ends as a triumph of stagecraft.

And that’s not even the most spectacular of the acts. In a contest more closely fought than a boxing match in a lift, the prize would have to go to Fancy Chance’s display of “wrath”. Hair-hanging has had something of a renaissance in recent years in the circus community and has proven to be both beautiful and hazardous. In the hands of someone as multi-talented and creative as the diminutive American, it transcends the eye-watering and becomes a thing of beauty. Her hair-hanging has already been seen at The Double R Club last year; for Seven Sins, she turns in a superbly-crafted portrait of physical poetry which mesmerises and astounds at every turn.

The spectacular Fancy Chance at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Verena Gremmer
The spectacular Fancy Chance at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Verena Gremmer

Last, and not least by a country mile, is Chrisalys and his excoriating exploration of the cardinal sin of avarice (or greed). One of the UK’s finest exponents of theatrical cabaret is no stranger to the Café de Paris – his “barbecued baby” act in Sins’ predecessor Cabaret des Distractions still burns brightly in the mind – but this may be his best creation yet.

With more twists and turns than the backstreets of Marrakesh, this is a routine for the ages. Appropriately enough masked up as his Mr Pig character, he bounds on stage in a black suit, with a glass of whiskey in one hand and personalised bank notes in place of a pocket square. Every inch the arch-capitalist, he sprays the notes around and sets furled umbrellas ablaze before swigging lighter fluid from a champagne bottle and breathing fire into the Café atmosphere.

In a brilliantly conceived manoeuvre, Chrisalys throws off his dark garb to reveal a white suit underneath. Now, art and economics graduates will likely be intellectualising that switcheroo while waiting for the barista to hurry up with that skinny latte but here’s one perspective: from a banker flaunting his wealth and ego, we are now presented with the same person dishing out dosh like there’s no tomorrow in the name of philanthropy. Gordon Gekko said that “greed is good”; here, Chrisalys’ “greed” is nothing short of an exhilarating tour de force.

It's all about the "greed" for Chrisalys at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Verena Gremmer
It’s all about the “greed” for Chrisalys at Seven Sins, Cafe de Paris. Image: Verena Gremmer

 

Seven Sins is far more than a loose collection of talented artists and a theme. There is evidence everywhere that the sum is greater than the parts and there is plenty of cast collaboration to enjoy. Dineen’s show choreography is inspired, making sure every act feels like a team effort with the central performer aided and abetted by one or more colleagues.

For his part, Kaye’s lips do double-time – when he’s not laying down a barrage of witty one-liners or verbally molesting the masses, he peps up the stage action with his live singing; most of the tracks were chosen by himself and arranged by musical director Andrea Biondo with contributions from vocalists Lili La Scala and Coco Malone, pianist Jaz Delorean and Des O’Connor on saxophone. Finally, the richly detailed costumes by Bettsie Bon Bon and Lia Parravinci of Fallen Feathers are visual treats in their own right.

So what does this all add up to? Quite a bit. Given all the qualities above, everything points to Sevens Sins being the finest regular cabaret show in London. Frankly, as long as it keeps up the quality, it deserves to have its own pedestal out in Piccadilly Circus. Moreover, it means that, under producer Tom Gravett’s aegis, Café de Paris can be spoken of in the same breath as French luminaries Moulin Rouge and Crazy Horse. If Brexit leads to British punters seeking home comforts over foreign fun, that’s all to the good: Seven Sins is proof enough that London is a skyscraper in the global cabaret landscape.

This Is Cabaret rating: ★★★★★

Seven Sins continues at Cafe de Paris on Fridays. Tickets are priced at £20-£75. Dining options available. Please check the official website for ticket information and availability.

Cover image: Beth Smith