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15 December 2004
Lor', I do love a Duckie

Libby Purves: The Times

Libby Purves finds entertainment ? and inspiration ? in a loopy parody of nightclub eroticism

IT IS NOT the likeliest of enthusiasms for a middle-aged Suffolk mother with dodgy dress sense and a penchant for heartily tousling pursuits such as sailing. But it is a relationship to which, in this season of entertainment, I should own up. I am addicted to Duckie. As their extraordinary show, C?est Vauxhall (renamed C?est Barbican in honour of that doomy corporate entertainment venue), opens once more at the Barbican Pit, my heart begins to beat faster. My booking-finger twitches. I need to be back at a gold-draped table, drinking atrocious champagne in an atmosphere of nervous apprehension while indefinably sinister waiters flit around pretending they want to sell you tatty souvenir keyrings for £65 and making sure nobody sits on the ominous, vacant gilt chair at each table.

Yes, I must go down to the Pit again: to see the flash of bodystocking and hear, once more, the opening announcement delivered in an unplaceable Franco-Weimar accent: ?Laydeez and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, bienvenue au meilleur spectacle du monde...?

At this point the drums begin, and you expect Joel Grey to appear round the curtain in heavy make-up. Instead, the lights hanging low over each of the tables rise abruptly and brighten into floodlights which, later on, will flare even brighter over whichever tables are currently being entertained by the company. For, in a variation on table-dancing, customers must place their order for acts to perform on their table. This does two things: it is a savage satire on the lapdance culture, and a moment of truth for nervous first-time punters who, in this case, are the victims and who are uneasily unsure of exactly what is involved in the menu?s list of Nacho Snatcho, Be Insulted, Girl-on-Girl Mexican Wrestling, and Chris Green?s World of Bodyworks. Even the experienced may not be sure of what will happen if they order the ?special of the day?. It turns out to be Iestyn Edwards as Madame Galina in her majestic tutu.

It is not erotic. It is a joke.
But then, the sex industry has always been a bad joke

First, however, a curtain sweeps aside to reveal another smaller roomful of round tables with gold cloths. Each of these rises, wobbling slightly, to reveal ownership of human legs, gender indeterminate; the leggy tables dance and gyrate as the opening song croons and pants with mock-erotic enthusiasm: ?Vous aimez le champagne. Le champagne et les filles. Les filles et la danse. La danse est ici. We want to delight you . We?re here to excite you. I swear I won?t bite you. We invite you.?

Born of louche gay cabaret at the Vauxhall Tavern, and refined in Edinburgh and Sydney, the act describes itself straight-facedly as ?progressive working class entertainment ... a collective of nightclub runners and anti-theatre performance pedlars bring acts ranging from the suggestive to the transgressive to the downright offensive, defining post-gay culture at the start of the century?.

To me, though, its joy is in its loopy camp parody of all overpriced nightclub eroticism, whether Edwardian, Parisian or Weimar. As the elegant performers shed their head-borne tables and reveal themselves as several women and a man in flesh-toned bodystockings and daft frilly pants, every overstaged pretentiousness of sexuality, every nonsensical article in the Erotic Review, is punctured. It is not erotic. It is a joke. But then, the sex industry has always been a bad joke. They sigh and wriggle: ?Appelle-moi Fifi. Appelle-moi Lulu. Appelle-moi Maurice. Appelle-moi!? In fact, they are Ursula Martinez ? a performance artist fresh from her own show exploring old age, whose blood-freezing outbreaks of insults are one of the most popular orders; Chris Green, also known as Tina C the drag C & W singer; Kazuko Hohki, the Japanese founder of the weird Frank Chickens group; and the mysterious ?Miss High Leg Kick? of Soho, who uses her dancer?s physique in ways rarely seen anywhere, let alone on tables amid stunned punters.

?La musique, la magique La magique magnifique Magnifique, fabuluex Fabuleux, fantasie Fantasie, erotique . . . C?est Vauxhall!?

I met them first a couple of seasons ago on the Edinburgh Fringe, when the turn was fairly new, and have particular reason to be grateful. I was in the middle of writing a novel, Acting Up, which played with the idea of different forms of courage. The heroine and her fiancé are both officers in the British Army, sent to the Iraq war at its menacing beginnings, when the troops in Camp Rhino were as convinced as the rest of us by the Government?s statement that Saddam could loose off chemical and biological weapons at 45 minutes? notice. The heroine?s brother Francis, however, is a drag comedy artist, who sings and dances in ruffles as Madame Fifi Fantoni, or in leather as Kelly Kinko: he is a camply knowing turn in the tradition of Madame Galina and Tina C.

Watch out of the nacho dip, you never know where it's been:
Duckie's show is a savage satire on lapdancing culture

I was writing about soldierly courage, but also about the need for a different courage when one of them is disabled and the other apparently deserted by her lover. Last, but not least, I was expressing the courage needed by broke, offbeat one-man comedy performers who go on stage in unpromising pub or club surroundings, face the possibility of humiliating rejection, and then have to do it somewhere else the following night.

I know a few such performers and have interviewed many more, and it seemed to me that their lonely professionalism and nightly summoning-up of nerve was an interesting quality to explore.

But I did not have anywhere to set the final, cathartic scene in which the military and the theatrical set could resolve their various plots. Writing about Edinburgh, it was easy enough to invent daft imaginary shows (Bollywood Elvis, the Accordion Mini-musical, etc) but none was quite right. Until I was invited to C?est Vauxhall, and met the Duckie team. There, with Chris Green sprawled across the table performing the last page of Joyce ?s Ulysses and Miss High Leg Kick assembling obscene balloon-models on the next table, I realised that I had my setting. A month or so later, rather nervously, I asked their permission to use them with real names and descriptions in the novel. Would they object to anything so mainstream, so Radio-4-Aga-saga-ish? They did not. They were chuffed. It was, I suppose, one more ironic postmodern surreal twist to their enterprise.

So now, to relive my own fiction, I won?t miss a show. Knowing what will happen ? more or less ? I sharpen the pleasure by introducing innocent newcomers to it without warning them. Last Christmas I watched my publisher and some old schoolfriends gape in terrified amusement, especially when an upside down lady served nachos from between her toes to be dipped in a crotch-borne salsa pot. Towards the end of the evening, a highly respected serious fine-arts journalist was found laughing hysterically in a set of skewed reindeer horns, clutching a balloon phallus, as entirely liberated from her daytime self as one should be in the best sort of nightclub.

This year, I am taking two eminent academics who have no idea what lies in store. It is a curious pleasure, but a real one. Appelle-moi, Fifi.

Acting Up is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £15.99

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