Cabaret

Boys From The Posh Stuff: Bounder and Cad

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Two thoroughly nice chaps you’d safely take home to mother. Two Cambridge choral scholars and occasionally camp satirists at pains to remind you they’re heterosexual. One a bit shorter and blonder, one a bit like Robert Peston.

Let’s first accentuate the positive and say that they sing effortlessly, possibly with more technical accuracy than most contemporary comedy cabaret and they acknowledge that their success is accidental, following a series of private and corporate parties at Number 10 or Highclere Castle.

Bounder and Cad both have day jobs – Adam Drew develops film scripts, Dr Guy Hayward researches the links between music and walking gait and promotes a series of curiously Chauceresque pilgrimages around Britain.

The current act has a repertoire of a dozen songs well-delivered and ranging from the purely classical to pop and show tune, but of dubious topicality: a version of Me and My Shadow parodies the Clegg and Cameron coalition, but wouldn’t pass muster on The Now Show. Their best piece The Flour Duet is a choice contrapuntal between Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood but that cake feels staler now their BBC partnership is over, and on the very day Article 50 was triggered, the best they could come up with was a funny but two-years-ago duet between Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras about the Greek debt crisis.

You just know Kit and the Widow would have scrawled something more sharp and topical on their shirt cuffs an hour before the performance.

Because their humour is free from contemporary savagery, everyone says ‘oh, they’re like Flanders and Swann’ as if many can remember the piano-and-wheelchair-bound pair of gents who last performed together in 1967. But actually Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh-Atkins have already mined that seam of ‘two posh blokes in dinner jackets’, for longer than Flanders and Swann did themselves.

Much as I love and respect the pioneering work of Adele Anderson and Dillie Keane with Fascinating Aida to whom Bounder and Cad also pay homage – they are also approaching the stage of their careers when they may consider whether it’s worth flogging the old Peugeot round the shires every winter to stay in a succession of Travelodges and entertain the people they’ve already entertained before.

Trying to give feedback in a positive way – their Teddy Bear’s Picnic song lampooning modern preferences for quinoa and quiche is genuinely funny, but it’s a cardinal error to repeat the same words in two choruses of a patter song, particularly when it would be fairly easy to write a fresh set.  There’s a certain shuffling on stage which looks like clumsiness but could be sorted out by a director, but the most fundamental problem is there’s too little differentiation between the onstage characters.

For a double act to succeed, even without resorting to the Music Hall convention of straight man and comic, you have to vary the personas: although as pairings coming from similar backgrounds Fry and Laurie, Armstrong and Miller, Mel and Sue, French and Saunders, even – God help us – Ant and Dec all learned this early on: one of you plays the more serious, pompous or pedantic role and the other sparks off it with the sarcasm.

Early days. If Waitrose did cabaret, this could be it: but in the harsher competitive arena of the urban comedy and cabaret circuit, we’d welcome something more pointed.

Bounder and Cad: Implicit Content, Crazy Coqs/Live at Zédel, London W1.  29 March 2017, 9pm.


Back from Broadway: Cynthia’s Comin’ Home

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There are few divas for whom you would queue an hour in the pouring rain on a cold night in January, but it was almost worth getting trench foot to witness the extraordinary, uplifting, generous and eclectic ‘comeback’ concert with which Cynthia Erivo chose to favour her loyal London mailing list.

Only circulated a week before, it was an instant sellout and even snaking down the flooding pavement the excitement was shared like we were a secret sect as customers spilling out of steamed-window Shoreditch eateries asked what we were queuing for and shrugged off our enthusiasm with a ‘never heard of her’.

But that is their loss, because not only did Ms Erivo leave London a definite musical theatre star on her way to The Color Purple on Broadway, she has returned with her brightness burnished to a dazzle, and with a trail of performances and landmark events she was visibly excited to share with this loving crowd.

Her voice has grown significantly since The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory or Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studios.  It was her 30th birthday a couple of weeks before this concert yet there are moments you look at Erivo – and this is only a compliment – and think she seems ageless. She has such mature vocals, and has already mastered so many musical genres and sings so reflectively that for a moment she might have a look of Joséphine Baker and a lifetime of experience in her phrasing.  Baker was a civil rights activist, too, and Erivo certainly doesn’t shrink from political engagement either.

Everything was introduced with an anecdote highlighting her extraordinary year – one of her most moving being singing ‘The Impossible Dream’ in a segment representing JFK at the Kennedy Centre Honors in Washington, when Aretha Franklin joined in the chorus and the Obamas were in the audience.

She is resolutely unafraid to tackle the iconic – how else could her concert include Billie Holliday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, Eva Cassidy’s remarkable 1992 arrangement of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and perhaps most daring of all, allow her to outshine Whitney in ‘I Will Always Love You’ which brought the house down. She sang a rare Etta James track, and to thunderous applause, welcomed to the stage her friend Leslie Odom Jr, star of ‘Hamilton’ for a duet from the show before introducing the wonderful ‘You Will Be Found’ – first-act closer from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, written by her other friends Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

She can belt, she can blast the rafters, she can improvise, but she never over-decorates: seizing the Carole King anthem ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ she drove the words home harder than Aretha herself, but constantly pulled them back to a confidential whisper, especially on the title phrase.  She spoke, as always, to the room, but if she was privately aiming this at her partner, Aladdin’s Dean John-Wilson who she namechecked in the audience, he is truly the luckiest of men.

And so, for two hours, were we.

 

Cynthia Erivo: Hey, It’s Been Some Time: Shoreditch Town Hall 29 January 2017, 7.30pm.

 

 

 

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

Critics’ Choice: Five Cabaret Shows You Really Should See This Week

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Remember, remember, November is always full of great cabaret. Forget those loud, empty bangs overhead: for real fireworks, check out these five shows.

 
TUESDAY: Meow Meow, Royal Festival Hall
The Australian siren dazzled this summer at the Brighton Fringe and in the Emma Rice-directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC. This week, she is back on the South Bank in the company of piano virtuoso Thomas M Lauderdale, and trio Pink Martini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Operatic cabaret divas are not a rarity, even in the UK, but none do it as well as Meow Meow.

1 November. Royal Festival Hall. Doors open 7:30pm. Tickets £25-45. More information


WEDNESDAY: Holly Penfield’s The Rhythm Of Life, Royal Vauxhall Tavern
Straight outta San Fran, Holly Penfield takes over the RVT for one night only as she sings a medley of her own songs interspersed with that of the iconic actress and singer Judy Garland. Penfield’s career is already five albums deep and the American songbird shows no signs of letting up on her breathtaking performances. We’ll be there as long as she promises to leave the horsewhip at home this time.

2 November. Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Doors open 8pm. Tickets £15 (reserved seating) £10 (general seating). More information


THURSDAY: Barelesque 11: Weird Science, Royal Vauxhall Tavern

A TIC favourite, Barelesque only pops up a few times a year so we recommend you grab your chance to see their shows when you can. Part kooky and kinky burlesque/variety show, part charity auction,  the show has raised thousands for the Albert Kennedy Trust making sure that homeless LGBT youth have a roof over their heads. Oh, and you get to see the awe-inspiring and award-nominated video burlesque artiste Ana Morphic and her co-founders Tallulah Van Leer and Honey Schnapps (pictured above).

3 November. Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Doors open 7pm. Tickets £10-£35. More information


FRIDAY: Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Variety, Hackney Empire

East End drag legend Jonny Woo doesn’t do variety shows by halves. Take a look at this lot for a cast: Bourgeois & Maurice, Diane Chorley & The Buffet, Le Gateau Chocolat, Peter and Bambi Heaven, Myra Dubois and Lavinia Co-op (another drag legend in her own right).  In between acts, Woo will be presenting topical material including a 10-minute Brexit – The Musical with Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer The Opera).

4 November. Hackney Empire. Doors open 7.30pm. Tickets £10-£35. More information


FRIDAY: Peacock Butch, Resistance Gallery

Describing itself as “a new queer clubbing experience”, this collaboration between bodypainter extraordinaire Victoria Gugenheim and Lucha Britannia’s Garry Vanderhone encourages every flavour of sexuality and gender expression to come on down and flaunt their beautiful selves. There will be live performance from alt-burlesquer and make-up genius Marnie Scarlet as well as a make-up artist on hand to help put that look together.

4 November, Resistance Gallery. Doors open 9pm. £5/£3 (students/extremely fabulous creatures). More information


Image: Barelesque co-founders Ana Morphic, Tallulah Van Leer and Honey Schnapps

The Crazy Coqs Relaunches As “Live At Zedel”

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Four years ago, tucked away in a chic little French brasserie in the centre of London,  a new cabaret venue was born. The Crazy Coqs, with the help of its exquisite art deco setting, brought “classical cabaret” back to London. From Tony award-winning Frances Ruffelle to Mad Men actor turned comfortable-cabaret-charmer Bryan Batt, the roster was ambitious, yet always entertaining.

Now, with the help of Alex Fane and United Agents, the old cabaret pin-up has been given a fresh lick of je ne sais quoi under the guise of an updated programme that still plays to its cabaret strengths, but adds a whole new dimension of comedy and theatre for audiences to laugh, sing and sip their cocktails along to.

The “Live At Zedel” programme breaks up the previous one of The Crazy Coqs with festivals and events planned in between the usual music acts. Already, befittingly for a venue basically inside an excellent French restaurant, there has been the launch of “Food Week”, where the likes of Gizzi Erskine, Levi Roots and Grace Dent have spoken about their life and love of gourmet and not so gourmet cuisine. Restaurant critic and jazz pianist Jay Rayner will also take to the stage as part of The Jay Rayner Quartet later in November, giving anyone with a love of the Floppy Haired One a chance to drop by for a night.

Restaurant critic Jay Rayner is just one of the acts lined up for Live At Zedel’s new programme.

Alex Fane has spoken about his wish to make the Crazy Coqs more a part of Soho with the “Live At Zedel” programming – and there’s surely no one more Soho than award-winning artist and author Grayson Perry. On for one night only later this month for his Typical Man In A Dress show, he’ll discuss his new book The Descent of Man as well as ideas of masculinity and identity, in-between, of course, plenty of costume changes.

But aside from nabbing Chelmsford’s most unique son, Fane has done a good job of rivalling other Soho institutions such as the Soho Theatre with, in particular, the breadth of Zedel’s comedy output. From one of the Fringe’s most talked about shows, Richard Gadd’s Monkey See Monkey Do, to “Scoundrels” – a new night for rising stand-ups to take the stage – for such a small space in central London there’s a wide range of laughs to be had.

For any Crazy Coqs stalwart bristling at the thought of change though, there’s no need to worry – United Artists have still left plenty of space for what made the venue special in the first place. The internationally acclaimed musical comedy cabaret singer Miss Hope Springs bursts onto the scene with her tongue-in-cheek tales of her life after the Pink Pelican Casino, and next month the likes of Barb Jungr, John McDaniel, Hailey Tuck and many other accomplished musicians will all be performing here as part of the London Jazz Festival. And if it’s music you want, look no further than Zedel’s new partnership with The Philharmonic Orchestra, with sections performing everything from Bach to Brahms throughout the season.

The venue itself is thankfully much the same – a glamorous, glitzy treat amongst the brashness of central London. Now with its new jam-packed programme, it just has a few extra jewels in its crown to polish.

You can find the ‘Live At Zedel’ programme here.

Review: La Poule Plombée, London Wonderground

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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.

What To See At Hightide Festival 2016

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Whisper it quietly, but even the theatre world hankers after some high-class cabaret action now and then.

This week sees the start of the Hightide Festival in Aldeburgh. Ostensibly a celebration of all things dramatic, this annual festival of new plays takes place over ten days on the Suffolk Coast. Its mission is “to support theatre-makers to say something different, by allowing them the time and the resources to create something that is outside of the norm.” So, nothing to see here for fans of cabaret, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong. Amidst the legion of luvvies and grads from RADA, Italia Conti et al emoting for all they are worth, there will be some rather delectable shows. Here are our top tips of what to catch and when.


Bourgeois & Maurice: How To Save The World Without Really Trying

If there is a lyrically sharper and fiercer dressed musical act than this iconoclastic duo, we’ll eat your hat. With song topics ranging from societal intolerance and media privacy to the impossibility of modern love, there is never a dull moment with these two. From their new show, here’s their latest catchy number.

Bourgeois & Maurice: How To Save The World Without Really Trying. Friday 9 September, 10pm


St James Theatre Cabaret Nights

Dominic Ferris and Martin Milnes are a unique combination who have played to sold-out houses in London’s St James Theatre. Dominic is a pianist extraordinaire; Martin has “two voices”. Together, they explore the American songbook in their own particular fashion. Here’s a studio version of their number performed live at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in “Hey, Old Friends!” An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

St James Theatre Cabaret Nights. Friday 16 September, 7pm


The Ruby Dolls: The Brides Of Bluebeard

The critically-acclaimed quartet (above) bring their brand new show to Hightide Festival before a London run. An updated version of a classic tale, expect chuckles and tunes both original and lovingly borrowed from the likes of Nick Cave, Amy Winehouse and Rage Against The Machine.

the-brides-of-bluebeard-image-large

The Ruby Dolls: The Brides Of Bluebeard. Friday 16 September, 8.30pm


Roulston & Young: Songs For Lovers (And Other Idiots)

Winners of the Best Musical Variety Act at the London Cabaret Awards, this scintillating pairing of Sarah-Louise Young and Michael Roulston will be playing numbers from two of their shows Songs For Cynics and Two Faced.  From the first of those shows, here is the hilarious Please Don’t Hand Me Your Baby.

Roulston & Young: Songs For Lovers (And Other Idiots). Saturday 7 September, 8:30pm


Full information on the Hightide Festival can be found on the official website.

Fings From The Fringe

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Well, who doesn’t love an alliterative title? And titles, when it comes to Edinburgh Fringe, can make or break you. Likewise your publicity image. Does it draw people in? What kind of people? And does it accurately represent what you do? Some of the biggest disappointments aren’t because a show is bad, but because it’s not what it promised.

The favourite title I’ve spotted so far this year is the risqué punning of ‘Fingering A Minor On The Piano’, from Adam Kay. That said, I wasn’t completely sure whether this was simply for shock value, or indicated a cleverer show. Until I saw Kay in his other Fringe offering, ‘The Remains of Tom Lehrer’The classic geeky wit and wordplay of Lehrer’s comic songs are equally matched by Kay’s own lyrical contributions and droopy-browed delivery.

Musical numbers are interspersed with biographical detail from Lehrer’s life and a few choice props are flung about. Like the stuffed pigeon sitting sedately atop the glossy black piano, Kay barely moves from his stool; he has no need because it’s the material – including previously unreleased compositions – that’s the star of this show, within Kay’s expertly constructed frame and presentation. The timbre of Kay’s voice may be a little thin when not ripping into the gleeful madness of growls and squeaks that compliments the smooth sociopathic straightness of his speaking voice so well but, when the verbal material is as rich this, that is a negligible note. He teases us with more variations of ‘The Elements’ than I knew existed, and favourites like ‘The Masochism Tango’ are given a 21st Century twist, proving Kay’s own skills as much as his muse’s.

I’m sold on ‘Fingering A Minor’. The best advert for a show is a taste of what that show experience will be like. And the currency of Word-Of-Mouth is, perhaps, worth more at Edinburgh Fringe than anywhere else.

This is one of the themes that arises in the first of Ben Walters‘ Cabaret Chinwag events, now a firm favourite in my Fringe fixtures. Each week he hosts a free (yes, FREE) panel show discussion with some of the most interesting performers from the Ed Fringe cabaret circuit. It’s a brilliant place to familiarise yourself with who’s doing what, and what shows are hot. And it’s been sponsored by Pickering’s Gin, so yes, there are freebies.

IMG_0107Today, guests are Lili La Scala, George and Liv of Bourgeois & Maurice, and Lisa and Kim from the Australian sensation Hot Brown Honey that’s hitting the UK for the first time under the production umbrella of Briefs, while presenting something wholly original. As well as info about their shows and careers, the guests are all prompted to give a little lo-fi taste of their work. ‘If You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life‘, from Bourgeois & Maurice’s first album becomes a poetry duet; Kim (a.k.a. Busty Beats) from the Hot Brown Honey team raps us their welcome to the hive; Lili La Scala melts the stresses of the Fringe away with her exquisite voice, singing unaccompanied the traditional Scottish ‘Mingulay Boat Song from her show Siren.

There’s mingling time afterwards, to sample more of the Pickering’s Gin offerings if you so desire. Another thread of the panel chat today though, is the function and dangers of alcohol as a prominent presence in the cabaret culture. Sober thoughts on a valuable resource. Just careful not to overdo it, for everyone’s sake.

Fingering A Minor on the Piano. By Adam Kay. Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, EH8 9TJ. Until 29 August, 18:40 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/adam-kay-fingering-a-minor-on-the-piano

The Remains Of Tom Lehrer. By Adam Kay. Gilded Balloon Teviot, Teviot Row House, EH8 9AJ. Until 29 August, 15:45 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/remains-of-tom-lehrer-performed-by-adam-kay

Cabaret Chinwag. Presented by Ben Walters. Fringe Central, Infirmary Street, EH1 1LZ. 11, 18, 24 August, 14:30 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/cabaret-chinwag

Another F*cking Variety Show. Presented by Lili La Scala. Pleasance Dome, Potterow, EH8 9AL. Until 28 August, 23:00 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/lili-la-scala-another-f-cking-variety-show

How to Save the World Without Really Trying. By Bourgeois & Maurice. Underbelly, 66 Cowgate, EH1 1JX. Until 28 August, 21:25 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/bourgeois-maurice-how-to-save-the-world-without-really-trying

Hot Brown Honey. Presented by Briefs Factory. Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU. Until 28 August, 20:20 https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/hot-brown-honey

A Day and a Night at Coney Island

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Many visitors are attracted to the iconic Coney Island amusement district of New York for its open air rollercoasters, games of chance, or sandy beach and hotdogs. For others though, the main attraction lies in a building on the corner of West 12th Street, transformed from it’s prior life as an army recruitment centre to the Circus Sideshow and museum.

Here, the traditions of sideshow shock entertainment are kept alive for a contemporary audience, passed on from performer to performer as each new wannabe must hone their skills from a master who’s gone before. The walls are decorated with giant murals that put a modern twist into the familiar antique banner aesthetic, and their creator Marie Thomas can sometimes be found offering workshops in the art of banner painting.

The not-for-profit organisation behind the Sideshow is Coney Island USA, whose motto, emblazoned on their website, is ‘Defending the honor of popular American culture.’  Set up by Dick Zigun 36 years ago, they also host magic shows upstairs in the museum every Sunday, produce the annual Mermaid Parade, and arrange other events throughout the year, including running a sideshow school. It’s widely suggested that the neo-burlesque movement can trace its roots back to this revival of Coney Island’s sideshow entertainment.

When the last big touring sideshow closed in the 80s, the performers came here and found a home to pass on their generations old skills. Today, the show is headed up by Alejandro Dubois, the Pain-Proof Puerto Rican, who has been part of the sideshow world for the last 15 years. He is fast talking and charming, grossing us out with his block-head routine one moment, enthralling us with his fire act that gracefully juggles flames across his body and out of his mouth the next.

There is a revolving team of artists who regularly work the sideshow. Zoe Ziegfeld shows off the snake tattoo wrapped round her body while wrapping herself further with a real albino python taller than she is. We see extreme upper limb contortion from Leo The Human Gumby (it’s a classic American cartoon character who’s really bendy – I had to ask!), who manages to find not one, not two, but three different ways of fitting his form through a tennis racket in today’s show.

sideshowThe whole show is introduced on the street with tannoy announcements and the regular live appearance of the grinning Mr Strange to perform a ‘roll up roll up’ style bally (short for ballyhoo). The performers refer to their schedule as ‘The Grind’, as they perform from 1-8pm throughout the day with only 10 minute breaks between rolling shows. What they offer is appropriate for family audiences – I notice it’s the big men who seems the most squeamish, the kids revel in it. Alejandro admits this does limit them in terms of how true they can remain to themselves in performance – ‘sometimes I just want to drop an f-bomb, ya know?’ – but when it comes to the evening shows, anything goes.

Tonight, usual Sideshow team member, Miss Coney Island 2015, Betty Bloomerz, is here with another crew. The Demented Dolls Of Sideshow are in town for the final date of their American tour, with a full-length all-female show featuring six darkly colourful performers and an array of skills that evoke reactions from pleasant cringe all the way to fist-in-mouth whaaaaa?!!

The show has been devised by the troupe in a way that blends their individual acts and allows them to co-exist onstage together in all their beautifully unique styles.  Hosted by the sneering, swigging, glass-swallowing Jenn.O.Cide, there is a loose thread of romance that ties the character performance together. Perky chic French contortionist Anaelle Spaghetti and Dutch diva Princess Tweedle Needle compete for the attentions of She-Man, a lothario drag-king creation from Marte Maritdatter – whose alternative human-pincushion character Princess of Scars turns up late for the party and wins Tweedle Needle with their shared royalty, pinning their bodies together in an elegantly literal interpretation of the Masochism Tango.

sideshow2Fibi Eyewalker is a freakish oddity who brings an absurd extremism to the company. Although the boast about there only being six female sword swallowers in the world is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, having both Eyewalker and Betty Bloomerz here tonight is still rather a coup. The pair have a variety of shaped and sized blades between them, including one with a seriously serated edge, which they move in and out of their gullets with characterful panache.

From gullet to gusset: it’s only fair to mention the most eye-watering display in the show is not the blood that decorates freshly pierced faces, but a suspension of a swinging milk pail from Princess Tweedle Needle’s labial piercings.

The Demented Dolls of Sideshow take classic elements of midway performance and spin them into a fresh and fulfilling freaky evening’s entertainment. Here’s hoping their next tour brings them to Britain!

 

 

Review: Ben Rimalower’s Patti Issues/Bad With Money, St James’ Studio

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This is a BOGOF worthy of Ben Rimalower’s beloved discount store Target: his two one-hour monologues Patti Issues and Bad With Money ran separately off Broadway – the paean of love to Ms LuPone for over a year – but in London come bolted together for the one cover charge.

His delivery is extrovert Jewish – nerdy, nebbish and steering an exact midway course between the genial self-deprecations of David Sedaris and the dangerous obsessions with all things musical theatre of Seth Rudetsky who recently platformed Ms Lupone herself in a show of prostrate adoration at the Leicester Square Theatre.

London may know and love LuPone – she created Fantine in Les Misérables here and I’m sure I’ve heard her drawl that it’s her “second home” on Graham Norton, but not as well as Rimalower. From his first exposure to her Evita, he’s been a slavish fan whose conflation of the talented and driven diva with the powerful and ruthless first lady of Argentina seems to have fuelled both his fantasies and his nightmares.

However warm and encouraging, a London audience is largely unfamiliar with Patti LuPone’s television career – ABC’s Life Goes On never aired here – and equally with Rimalower’s own CV: the 2005 musical Joy he directed off-Broadway also never crossed the pond, so it’s an uphill sell for him to get some of his anecdotes across. “That went down a storm in New York” he told the St James’ studio as it blanked another parochial reference. Maybe he needed a later, loucher and more martini-lubricated crowd, or maybe the extreme fandom of musical theatre actresses is more a New York phenomenon. I can’t imagine anyone crafting a cabaret evening from their scrapbooks of Elaine Paige.

Not even Elaine.

He’s at his very best with the parallel story, riotously told, of his father’s coming out, as a fairly flagrant gay man (“oh sure, my dad was a bottom”), and the precocity he acquired from such early exposure to all shades of romantic involvement as he shuttled between his mother’s home and those of his father’s sequential partners.

The second monologue Bad With Money is more searingly confessional, peopled with some of the same fond family characters for warmth but there’s the honesty you’d find at an AA meeting when Rimalower explains his lifelong commitment to living beyond his means, whether skimming from his mother’s purse, or dabbling with prostitution after blowing his student funding on drugs in the first weeks of term.

At first the audience laughs with him, softening up for a happy ending perhaps, but you can feel a shift towards the judgemental when he embezzles thousands from the kindest of men, producer Lonny Price who gave him his Broadway break.

That Rimalower doesn’t then swerve the story back to a humorous or benign ending is a tribute to the new-found honesty of a long-time liar, but more to his mastery as a writer and raconteur.  Facing your demons is hard, but making an audience face your demons and still go home satisfied is beyond clever.

Ben Rimalower: Patti Issues and Bad With Money, St James’s Studio, London SW1.  Friday 11 March 2016, 8pm