The controversial London Festival Of Cabaret kicks off next month. Last week, many luminaries of the London cabaret community came together to voice their protest as part of a new video. Song writer Mannish gives an exclusive peek behind the scenes and explains why there is revolution in the air.
For me, the biggest surprise about the original Cabariot video was its unexpected popularity beyond the London cabaret scene. Having only really imagined it spreading across the social networks of the performers involved, it was a thrill to see it shooting further afield almost immediately, firstly to people who like musical comedy and parody, then to people who just love a big old fuss, and eventually to X Factor trolls and rabid fans of Gary Barlow who couldn’t take the joke. Oh, and also Gary Barlow himself, who to his credit did take the joke in exactly the spirit it was intended, retweeting it to millions in the process. I think I know why it worked. We did something we believed in, we did it well and without any self-righteous anger, and we had a blast making it. Honestly, you don’t have to know who the hell anyone in that video is to get that it’s all about sticking it to the man, and what’s important is that the everyone knows the particular man to whom we stuck it.
So when a second Cabariot seemed on the cards – a Cabarevolution – following the announcement (rightly greeted with indignation) that an inaugural “London Festival Of Cabaret” was taking place but comprised almost entirely of musical theatre actors singing songbook standards, it was difficult not to compare it to the original protest. Would this one come across as a severe case of sour grapes? Were we all just having a massive tantrum because we hadn’t been invited to a party? Was it ironic that we were arguing against their exclusive and unrepresentative definition of cabaret in London by saying “You’re not as cabaret as we are!” – a protest which sounds equally exclusive? Most importantly, guys, who’s going to care?
This proposed Cabarevolution has certainly felt much more controversial and divisive than the original Cabariot. The initial vociferous protests against the LFOC came from Josephine Shaker, incensed that the hard work of her colleagues was being shunned by a group of unknown organisers who had the nerve to use the representative-sounding title, “London Festival of Cabaret,” when they actually should have used the much more specific title, “London Festival of a Few West End Wendies Covering Their Fave Songs, and TV’s Alexander Armstrong Having a Go Too.” She was joined in her outrage by various leading lights of the cabaret scene, but after the initial flurry of negative tweets and blog entries, some protesters backed off, clearly concerned that this Cabarevolution might be conducted the wrong way. Whereas the performers in the first Cabariot were happy to sign up without seeing so much as an outline, let alone a draft shooting script, this time the movement encountered much more reticence. The turnout on the day of filming was happily comparable in numbers to the first, but there were notable absences, which signified a tentative refusal to fully commit without knowing exactly what form this second protest would take.
Of course, this is understandable. I was the one tasked with the job of writing the script – having thankfully done the job well enough to impress some people the last time – and I doubt I would have been so eager to jump on board without knowing I’d be able to control the tone and angle of the piece. I knew from the beginning what I wanted to avoid, and luckily everyone who was there on the day agreed. The most important thing was to make fun of ourselves. It had to be so ridiculous, so overblown, so clearly not real, that no one could accuse us of being bullies or trolls or, worst of all, Moaning Minnies. The point I was hoping to make was not that the LFOC should be stopped, but that we the Cabarevolutionaries – the people who devote our lives to developing and championing this fluid artform – should be started. Galvanised into action by the undeniably narrow-sighted decision-making of the LFOC, but only using that as the impetus to kick-start a major celebration of what we do. There’s room for everything and everyone – that feels like the “motto” of cabaret and variety, as I see it.
Thus the concept for the video had to be something communist. Something liberating. Some sort of parody about revolutionaries standing up for the rights of the people. This is where Les Misérables so conveniently came in, providing us with a very recent mega-hit film for convenient parodic references. Again, and understandably too, some were unsure as to the sense of using musical theatre to make the point that cabaret isn’t just musical theatre. But we couldn’t just cut it out completely – that would have been as narrow-sighted as the very thing against which we’re railing. We had to have everything in this video – juggling, hula-hooping, fire-breathing, drag, aerial, magic, tricks, burlesque, acrobatics, character comedy, even musical theatre, and most of all, dialogue. Lines that we say, that are hopefully funny and entertaining, but also get our voices heard. That’s really what this was all about. Why not say something, if we all feel this strongly about it? Just make sure we say it with a positive and comedic spin, so it’s palatable, and no one comes off as an arse. I think we achieved it, although I guess you’ll have to wait and see.
Crucially, the best moments in the video weren’t in the draft script at all, but happened on the day, in the moment, provided by the peculiar group of misfits that rocked up in unmodified support of the cause. A lot of people were saying “This will only work if everyone gets behind it,” which is definitely true, but it’s also not too late to get on board. My hope is that people receive this video, and the upcoming London Cabaret Festival that accompanies it, in exactly the spirit it’s meant – a passionate feeling presented to you in a beguiling, challenging, slightly naughty and highly entertaining form. That’s really the best advert for cabaret, isn’t it? And if Gary Barlow can take a joke, I’m sure the LFOC can, too.
Image credits: Mat Ricardo