Old-fashioned variety show for refined ladies and gentlemen.
The Road to Cabaret Summer Special transforms the Battersea Mess and Music Hall ballroom into a post-war dinner and dance event, with penguin-suited hosts, a house jazz trio and a suitably costumed audience sitting at tables named after the likes of David Niven and Frank Sinatra. Introduced by the gentlemanly Arnold Wilson with his clipped English tones, the mustachioed host announces the evening’s line-up while prompting well-received audience participation with old-fashioned “ooh!” “aah!” and “applause” prompt cards.
The occasion suits the setting well, but there is a lack of focus for the audience due to unimaginative use of lighting; the performers are not lit well, despite the venue’s facility to do so, with house lights up too high and a confusing layout of tables squashed in front of the performance space. This results in a large proportion of the audience having a restricted view, with a loss in communication and intimacy between the performers and the crowd at times.
Headliner, opening act and resident singer for The Road to Cabaret, Tracey Campbell breaks through these barriers without any trouble, working the room with her commanding stage presence, relaxed delivery style and flawless vocal technique. The jazz chanteuse’s opening number, the up-tempo Judy Garland song Get Happy, fits the mood of the event well, with the talented house band providing excellent support. Her smooth and silky voice is showcased in a dark humour-laden rendition of Cry Me A River, showing a rich and resonant full tone and an emotional intensity, though her wicked sense of humour isn’t suppressed for long.
Campbell effortlessly segues this blues ballad into a walking bass-driven jazz section, ably followed by the band, with her cheeky Londoner attitude sneaking in as she adlibs some spoken wisecracks. An entertaining improvised song follows, based entirely on audience suggestions, with virtuosic scat singing and impressive musical riffs. Campbell’s faux ditzy onstage persona – forgetting her set list, pretending not to recognize song intros – is a delightful act but it can’t disguise this accomplished singer’s musical skills. Following a second show-stealing set later in the evening, she receives a standing ovation.
The bar is set extremely high after her first appearance, as Campbell epitomises the clichéd “hard act to follow”. A less polished performance from Ed The Magician feels more suited to a wedding reception than to a sophisticated variety show, and a linking device between acts where an audience “volunteer” reads out household tips falls rather flat. One highlight comes with a small but perfectly formed fan dance performance from diminutive burlesque artist Little Lady Luscious with added comedy effect coming from the reactions of the very proper and terribly reserved English gent Arnold Wilson. A vintage radio play performed by The RTC Radio Players has some lovely moments – amusingly rendered characters and the use of sound effects, both live and recorded – but the script runs on for far too long.
Despite the huge differences in the quality of the acts, there are so many creative ideas here, and the atmosphere has such a great ambience. The Road to Cabaret is still a new venture, and is in development. There is huge potential here for this to become a high quality event building on the audience support that it already has and the association with the wonderful Battersea Mess and Music Hall.
The Road To Cabaret return on 3 October for their Autumn Gathering. Meanwhile, Little Lady Luscious returns to this venue on 6 September to present her own Hooch Cabaret , 1990s-themed variety show .
The Road to Cabaret. Battersea Mess and Music Hall, 51 Lavender Gardens, London SW11 1DJ. 1 August. ore information on The Road To Cabaret here.
Little Lady Luscious photo credit: Paul Singer