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17 February 2009
Seduced by Duckie's seaside valentine

Maxie Szalwinska: The Guardian

The trashy troupe's ball in Bexhill-on-Sea was an unabashedly kitsch floor-filler for young and old

The stunning, modernist De La Warr Pavilion is reason enough to visit sleepy Bexhill-on-Sea. The building's curves – the silky white of a Mr Whippy ice cream – almost make you want to run your tongue along its sleek facade.

I was enticed there last weekend by Duckie's Valentine's Day Performance Ball. I'm a longstanding fan of Duckie, the "purveyors of progressive working-class entertainment" behind the gloriously trashy and hugely enjoyable show C'est Vauxhall. They specialise in off-beam art in nightclub settings. I was mildly disappointed by last year's Gay Shame, a tongue-in-cheek alternative to Gay Pride billed as an "annual festival of homosexual misery", but I looked forward to the troupe's Valentine's Day offering.

Much of the live art on offer felt like back-of-a-cigarette-packet stuff, reliant on the goodwill of an audience greased with a few beers and determined to enjoy itself (a trash aesthetic is one thing, but tat in ironic packaging is still tat). Whereas Gay Shame began with real promise and frittered itself away, the Valentine's Ball proved a far more interesting evening. The aim was to create a show for OAPs as well as Duckie regulars, or as producer Simon Casson put it, a show for "the queers and the old dears". To this end, Duckie offered discounted tickets to local OAPs, and bused in younger crowds from London and Brighton.

The event pulled in a genuinely diverse audience – some in tuxedoes and sequins, others in jeans. Under a glitterball, there was a craft stall where you could buy your beloved a cupcake or a card for 18p. The evening was punctuated by a series of formal dances, which saw gay, lesbian and straight couples mingling on the dance floor.

Duckie didn't assume that the Bexhill contingent wouldn't enjoy more experimental work, and they got the game, friendly audience they deserved. The local residents I talked to embraced the chance to see something a little bit different, and were unfazed by the show's "performance arty" elements. Even H Plewis's RomDotCom, a yearning romance between two electronic signs ("I like your typos," ran one chat-up line), went down well.

There were unabashedly kitsch stage acts too, from fire-eating and disco hula-hooping, to local soprano Anne Dalton singing Silver Bells. Lorraine Bowen's ode to Bexhill, with its video footage of pensioners zooming around on mobility scooters, unimaginatively parroted stereotypes of old people. But Miss High Leg Kick and the Sugar Dandies created an "intergenerational fantasia of ballroom dance" that was wistful and droll, and delivered with real affection. How often do you see old and young couples dancing together, outside of weddings?

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