Saturday, 26 May 2012

Pride and Proud


There's been a little bit of chatter in our small corner of the internet recently about a proposed exclusivity deal for performers working at Proud venues. For a while we all rolled our collective eyes at the idea, knowing, as we do, that such an idea is completely unworkable, and would lead to everyone being worse off - not least the venue that attempted to instigate it. It didn't take long for the powers that be to realise how massively misjudged this move was, and to apologise and take it all back. It was a few days of entertaining drama in a community that adores entertaining drama.

Obviously, part of being employed is being able to react with ridicule when an employer makes a wrong move. When someone does something that can be seen as insulting, it's perfectly acceptable to be insulted, and to tell them where to get off. It's part of the dance that every freelancer occasionally does with their boss.

But some of the comments left by members of the burlesque and cabaret world left a very bad taste in my mouth. Seems to me that people were very quick to jump on the bandwagon, and in doing so, they didn't just insult the people who had made a bad business decision - they also insulted the venue, the staff, the shows and the performers. And, since I'm one of those performers, and so are a bunch of my friends, This stung a little.

People who either (a) hid behind anonimity or (b) should know better used the opportunity to say some very unpleasant and abusive things about myself and my colleagues.

And here's the thing - if we're going to take Alex Proud to task for an ill-judged statement, then I think it's time we applied the same rules to some of our own.

I'm not going to stoop to playground-level barbs, or waste time countering the tweets and posts of those who were transparently more motivated by finance or sour grapes than opinion, but what I will do is tell you this: I work, semi regularly, at Proud Cabaret, and here's what it's like...

At about 6pm I have a bath. Cleanse, exfoliate & moisturise. Freshly laundered shirt, tie tied, suit on, shoes polished. By 7.30 I'm on the train, suitcase by my feet and cane in hand.

Walking across London Bridge as the sun starts to go down, in the opposite direction to almost everyone else. They're going home, I'm going to work. That feels nice.

I've always liked the act of walking into a venue that I'm performing in. It's one of the ways the difference of my job makes itself known most stylishly. Thank god I'm not a stand up - they don't often get to play places like this. The high class dazzle of the Cafe De Paris, the gaudy decadence of Jojo's, the sticky-floored perfection of the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club - I adore them all, and then there's Proud.

Past Ronnie on the door, down the dark staircase lit only by brass candlesticks (where I once pushed passed Geri Halliwell without realising who she was), turn left at the coat check girl, and there it is, dark, wide, smoky and red, like the kind of secret speakeasy that shoud inhabited by people from Vettriano paintings. It's really pretty gorgeous. I cross over to the bar, where the barmaid shouts a happy "Ricarrrrdo!" at me, before sliding me a diet coke.

I take the coke with me, past the kitchen and down the corridor to the dressing room. Well, we call it a dressing room - it's the fat end of the back corridor. It could be better, but there's just about enough space for everyone's stuff, and frankly, most London venues don't have anything bigger.

And there's Coco Dubois fretting over her hair in the mirror, all wide-eyed and manic. Talking like a speed-freak and occasionally actually meowing. Young, glamorous and absurdly talented, she's the glue that holds the show together. In this venue, she's one of the best hosts I've ever seen, and she's got a voice that can knock you on your ass. We're all saying hello, lots of hugs and kisses. Betsy Rose, dressed as she absolutely, positively, always is, in perfect 1930's vintage orginals. Soon she's be onstage, dressed in military uniform, somehow making the act of saluting the hottest thing you've ever seen.

Maybe tonight we've got Kiki Kaboom knocking 'em bandy with her legendary chav burlesque, or Banbury Cross and Beau Rocks - nobody does straight up hot showgirl better than these two, or Missy Fatale dragging flames over her body while raising the heat in the audience too.

A loud, completely naked ball of energy bounces round the back left corner of the corridor, ahh yes, Miss Abi Collins - every circus needs a clown, and later she'll be getting roars of laughter in one of her many alter-egos.

Dan the stage kitten has just arrived, straight from working his day job at the London Dungeon to here, where his role is to retrieve various items of underwear so casually discarded by the performers. Oh, and he gets my cigar boxes too. And Taz is sorting out everyone's music, cues and running orders. Taz runs the show, and he runs it very well. Because of him, working here is smooth, reliable and grown-up. I remember the first time I met him, within 10 minutes we had both told each other of our plans for the zombie apolcalypse, and thus knew we'd get along fine. (Mental note - come Z-day, you could do worse that Proud as a place to hole up...basement...good food stocks..)

And then we're off and running. Coco is telling that audience that she's messing with them, I'm throwing hats and canes around, Abi's climbing over poor unsuspecting audience members and tassels are being twirled. The place is hot and dark, and the hidden haze machines make every spotlight a smoky, evocative hot beam of cabaret. And sure, sometimes there's a table of shrill hen partiers, and sometimes there's a gang of men who look like rejects from the early stages of The Apprentice, but those things are true of pretty much every burlesque club in town. And Proud has Ronnie, so it's never a problem.

During one of the intervals I'll hang out by the kitchen door and talk wrestling with the chef, or go upstairs with some of the girls while they smoke and we sort out their love lives. Then I'll vanish downstairs where there is a space big enough for me to warm up for my second spot.

I'm usually gone before the show ends so I can catch the early train home, but as I walk across by the bar on my way out, I'll probably slow to a stop and watch Coco belt out her Queen number, which always brings the house down - she hits that last big note as Taz flicks on the string of lightbulbs around the top edge of the stage and it looks for a moment about as showbiz as anything can look. I might stay a little longer to watch Banbury bring the audience to a boil and then cool them down by covering herself (and some of them) with champagne. Then I'm off, up the stairs, and out into the night and home.

Here's my point with all this - when someone does something ill-judged, then sure, take the piss. But Proud is, just like every other venue, made up of floor staff, kitchen staff, bar staff, performers and technicians who work really hard to create what is - by any standards - a great  burlesque show in a gorgeous venue.

I work pretty much every cabaret and burlesque venue in London - and those that I don't work, I'd like to - and that's where my loyalty lies - with cabaret. With the cabaret family. And I don't like it when some members of my cabaret family use something like this to start insulting the talent that happens to work at a specific venue. That's unpleasant and rude, and it's not indicative of the support that makes this circuit such a pleasure to be a part of.

So chill. The boss did a silly thing, and then took it back. The performers, and the venue, and the staff are all pretty damn great though.

Talking of the pleasure of sharing a bill with great performers - the June 14th Mat Ricardo's London Varieties is a rare chance to see two of the most respected, talented and entertaining figures from the world of magic. Noel Britten is a veteran comedy speciality act - hilarious, off-the-wall, and brilliant, and Richard McDougall is a past world champion of close-up magic, one of Derren Brown's co-writers, and an equistite slight of hand artist.

We're also very pleased to announce that the amazing Lords Of Strut will be travelling all the way from Ireland to play The Varieties, complete with their spandex unitards. Add to that a very special guest, lots of new material from yours truly and some gorgeous rare archive variety footage, and you better get yourself a ticket!

Want more info? Check out the video at the top of the page on the far right side and enjoy!

Friday, 18 May 2012

One Man



When I was young, my parents took me to see Max Wall's one man show. I remember this captivating, hilarious, silly and fairly terrifying man, "In the flesh and not a cartoon". He did Professor Wallofski, of course, but I most I remember him just standing there on stage, in his suit and crumpled old hat, telling stories about his life that he had made into jokes. As someone who nowadays does one man shows, I think about him often.

Last night I did the last performance of "Three Balls and a New Suit" - bits of it might reappear in other shows one day, but as far as I know, as it stands, that's it for that show. It's done. I was hoping for a lovely final show, and if I'm being honest, that didn't really happen. The venue seemed to be on a too tight schedule, I only had 10 minutes to set up my stage, so couldn't really warm-up, and even though only half of the people who had bought and paid for tickets had taken their seats, I was told we couldn't wait and I had to start right now. Couple that with some tech issues, the venue phone not being turned off during the show, and a few other gripes, and I was disappointed with it. Luckily earlier on in the week, my penultimate performance had been, I think, the best it's ever gone, so I was not too downhearted.

So now I delete all those words from my brain and start again. I'll be debuting my brand new one man show in about two months and then taking it to the Edinburgh festival. I have a title, and a vague theme, and a notebook full of half-formed ideas, and that's all. This is all, like Max Wall, silly and terrifying.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

The point of it all



So. This was going to be the usual once-a-month "please come to the London Varieties show" type blog post, and while it's still certainly that - in that I would very much like you to come to the June 14th show (Details of which are in the video above) - something small but rather lovely happened this morning between uploading the video and writing this post.

I got up, put together the promo video, uploaded it to YouTube and then, as you'll know if you've ever uploaded anything, you have to wait a while while YouTube digests and lists the video. So off I went to the laundrette to pick up some duvet covers (showbiz life, kids.) and stopped off at the cafe on the way back to get a nice breakfast.

And it was on my way home, washing in one hand, breakfast in the other, that I saw her. An old lady - in her 80's at least - stooping, looking at the window of one of the shops near my house, staring at the poster for last months Varieties. As I passed, she spoke slowly to her herself as she read it, "Variety? Bethnal Green Working Men's Club?"

So I stopped, and with a cheery smile, told her, yes, variety, and yes, Bethnal Green Working Mens Club. She told me she lived in Hackney, but didn't know where the working mens club was, I told her, and admitted that the poster was for my show. By this time her daughter had arrived.

"Is this really a variety show? Like the old variety shows?", the old lady asked me. I told her yes. Exactly like that. The next show is on June the 14th, I told her. "Oooh", she said, "what kind of things are in the show?"

So I told her. "really funny acrobats, a former world champion magician, one of the country's funniest comedy speciality acts, and me - I'm a juggler and I'll be doing lots of tricks, and there's always some secret surprise guests..", and her eyes fucking lit up.

Putting on this show is wayyy more work than I thought it would be, and although every show night is just about as happy as I ever get, in the last few days the stress has been winning and I kinda lost my love for it a little. But my god, the grin that spread across that old girl's face when I told her about the people in the next show. She took my heart right out of my chest, gave it a spit and polish, and threw it back in there.

Her daughter was standing by a car - they were going to the cemetery to visit the old lady's late husband. She asked for a card and I gave her one. Then she got in her car and I went home. Both happier.

I really hope she comes to the show.

I really hope you do too.. and if you do, here's what you'll see...


NOEL BRITTEN


Our headliner is one of the funniest and craziest comedy acts in the country.
It's a pleasure to welcome the hilarious Noel Britten to the varieties.

LORDS OF STRUT


They are coming all the way from Ireland to play The Varieties!
Arms only with the powers of dance, circus and spandex unitards..

RICHARD MCDOUGALL


A former world champion of close-up magic, one of Derren Browns co-writers and a man who
has performed his act privately for The Queen five times.
Richard is quite simply one of the most exquisite slight-of-hand artists you will ever see.

PLUS...

A very special surprise guest in conversation
Lots of new tricks and stand-up from your host
Rare archive variety footage
and more!

"GUARANTEED ENTERTAINMENT!" - ThissCabaret.com

"EXHILARATING! YOU NEED TO GO!" - ToMaxTalks.com

June 14th, doors 7pm, show 8pm, Tickets £10

See you there!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Shittest Burlesque I've Seen. A response.

You will, undoubtedly, have by now read the post on ThisIsCabaret.com entitled "The shittest burlesque I've seen", written by the pseudonymous Alita O'Ginn.

It made me sad.

The central issue of the piece seems to be how tired Alita has become having to watch burlesque performers that don't reach her standards. How annoying it is to have to endure anything but the very best. It must be simply awful for her.

"Do it well or don't do it at all", she says. And here's the problem.

Yes, of course, there are many awful burlesque performers. There are also many awful comedians, newsagents, shoe designers, R&B stars and, well, everything. And yes, some of the awful burlesque performers have been doing it long enough to know better, and just seem not to be able to develop. It's the same in every art form, and it's a shame, but it's the way of things.

Most of the less good burlesque performers, though, are also the less experienced. And that's where Miss O'Ginn's opinions become something a little nastier. To say "Do it well or don't do it at all" to a newbie is to ignore the most basic and important quality of being an artist. To mature. To develop. To let one's art reflect one's growth as a person. That's key. That's being an artist.

Nobody started out fully-formed - certainly not me. It took me at least a decade to even begin to find the things that make me, me. I guarantee that whoever your favourite cabaret, burlesque or comedy performer is, they started out nothing like the person you see and love today. They started out, in all probability, shit. Or at the very least unoriginal, unsure, tentative and scared. Then, as their confidence increased, as their knowledge of stagecraft deepened, as they started to have more faith in themselves as an artist - as someone who can create - they slowly inched towards all the things you like about them.

But this process is hard. It's often painful. It takes bravery and confidence. And if there was someone rolling their eyes and saying "Do it well or don't do it at all", then that fragile confidence might well be punctured, and your favourite performer might run away back to their bedsit and never get to the glorious side of their chrysalis journey.

Miss O'Ginn seems to think that burlesque must either be sexy or funny, but surely it can so much more. It can be clever, thought-provoking, political, surreal - all the things that theatre can be - because that's what it is - a theatre form. Now don't get me wrong - I don't think those that fail to learn, or fail to take those tricky steps into originality, should be indulged forever. I take my shit very seriously, and I expect people I share a bill with to have the same levels of psychotic commitment, but people who aren't there yet have to be given a certain amount of room to try. Their artistry should be encouraged, not their failings punished.

And you know what? I've seen this happen before. A long time ago, when my circuit wasn't cabaret clubs, but was street theatre. There was a time when the established performers felt a little threatened by the influx of new performers. In response, some rules were discussed that would favour the old guard - make it easier for them to get better show times, stuff like that. The rationale was that because the younger performers didn't have such good shows, they shouldn't get the lucrative lunchtime slots. It was ugly, transparent and nasty. And you know what happened? The young performers went elsewhere and spread the word that the Covent Garden performers were cliquey, unwelcoming bullies. And they were right. The scene stagnated and the level of quality of the shows dropped. It harmed everyone.

I love the cabaret and burlesque circuit. I love that the people who make it up are open, non-judgemental and genuinely loving. When I work a stand-up club it's a very real shock that the acts don't all hug and kiss each other and hang out watching and enjoying each others work. Cabaret is different. It's a family, and like any family there are the parents, the respected elder sisters and brothers and the young sprogs and foster care kids we take in. The family that I love - and that perhaps you have feelings for too - happened because of an open door policy. You want to come and play? Cool - come play. Maybe you'll be shit and realise that it's not for you and leave, or maybe you'll become something amazing, beautiful and important, and maybe it'll take a decade to figure out which of those two things you are. We will encourage you, give you ideas, tell you what's not working and let you buy us a cocktail.

That's why the article made me sad. Not angry, not frustrated. Sad. Sad that a website devoted to celebrating burlesque and cabaret has got its highest hit count out of a piece effectively telling three-quarters of that circuit to give it up. But mainly sad because this kind of grumpy gate-keeping has no place in the cabaret family that I know. The cabaret family that I'm a part of doesn't have a gatekeeper. We want the family to grow, so we put out the welcome mat and we leave our door unlocked.