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6 December 2004
Sex and satire - a very British night out

Aleks Sirez: Daily Telegraph

'New cabaret' artists Duckie offer seasonal entertainment that would make a pantomime dame blush. Aleks Sierz meets them

If the idea of a Christmas panto ? screaming kids, mincing dames and singing from prompt cards ? is enough to make you howl, take heart: there is an alternative. "New cabaret" ? cutting-edge theatre which draws on the traditions of burlesque ? is the answer.

C'est Barbican

A very British night out: C'est Barbican

Duckie, one of the leading practitioners of the genre, won an Olivier award last year for its Christmas event, C'est Barbican!, and returns this year with a new show under the same name. Its format is seasonal entertainment, but not as we know it. The subterranean Pit theatre at London's Barbican has been turned into a nightclub, and the audience sits eight to a table, sips champagne and is encouraged to smoke. Guests get 50 "Duckie dollars" and order as many of the 30 acts from the menu as they can afford. These 10-minute acts are then performed specially for these guests ? although, of course, you can watch what's happening at other tables.

Inspired by table dancing as well as by glamorous cabaret, C'est Barbican! offers an evening of stylish satire. I caught up with Duckie producer Simon Casson and performers Ursula Martinez and Chris Green in a smoky dive. Without their body stockings and make-up, they look reassuringly normal, and drag-artist Green assures me he'll shave off his week-old beard before he slips into costume.

"We're into event culture," says Casson. "The minute you walk in the door, the show begins and you're part if it. Everything you come across in the event is part of the show."

This year's menu is a secret, but last year's offered acts such as "Live Sex Change", "Stilettos of Death", "Nacho Snatcho" and "Granny High Leg Kick".

"The menu creates expectations, and we flirt a lot with sex and suggestiveness," says Green, "but nine times out of 10 it's totally innocent. It's all about not getting what you think you'll get." Although the show is fun, it does demand audience participation. In Sydney, Australia, on this year's Duckie tour, a Chinese delegation and a young couple walked out in terror.

Some acts, such as Green's reading of an extract from James Joyce's Ulysses, have been known to have a sobering effect on hen parties, while others are greeted with noisy roars. As Martinez says, "It can tip over the edge, but we are seasoned cabaret performers and quite good at crowd control."

Most of the acts are quite sweet, except for "Be Insulted", where Martinez blindfolds guests and mocks them. But, as she says, "A lot of people seem to enjoy that kind of playful masochism."


A bit of slap and tickle: Chris Green prepares for a show

Green says, "Some of things we do are more demeaning than professional lapdancing. One act is called "Emotional Striptease", but instead of stripping off and showing our genitals, we will tell you any secret you wish to know. People can't believe we'd do that, but we do."

The show also exposes punters' attitudes to money. Although "Duckie dollars" are no more legal than Monopoly money, says Casson, "People get so involved that they believe they're real." And Green adds, "They get so protective of their dollars ? it shows how we really define ourselves by what we buy, especially around Christmas."

Duckie started nine years ago as a group of performance artists who specialise in provocation. Their show began life as C'est Vauxhall! at the Vauxhall Tavern in south London, a gay haunt. Green mockingly calls the group "post-queer and pre-anti-gay".

Their early shows were antagonistic. "Our shows had a fierce energy," says Casson. "Everything was punky, scrappy and there'd be fights on stage, with bottles flying." Duckie advertise themselves with the slogan "Drinking, dancing, shagging and the arts", and call themselves "purveyors of progressive working-class entertainment".

Casson says that that "means we started off by making the kind of cabaret shows that my mum and dad might have seen at the Irish Club in Hackney ? we want to use popular forms of music and comedy, but with a twist. Theatre in London is quite middle-class, but it should be a really great night out, rather than just a sombre or cerebral experience."

Duckie also stage other shows during the year, including a Gay Shame fair, which satirises gay consumer culture during the annual Gay Pride event. "Gay Shame was us going back to Duckie roots," says Martinez. "Some of that was really quite outrageously hard-core." One act was called "Kiss the Aids case".

Variety shows such as this are the new avant-garde, and there's plenty to chose from. The Shunt Collective's Tropicana uses nightclub elements in its show under the railway arches of London Bridge station, while No Coat Fur Knickers perform musical comedy at London's Marquee Club. Other acts have enticing names such as Club Whoopee and Kitsch Lounge Riot. It's all more Moulin Rouge than Theatre Royal.

Like much of the new cabaret, C'est Barbican! is both clever and theatrically pleasurable. Partly a joke on corporate entertainment, partly a subversion of expectations, it offers 10-minute acts for the MTV generation's short attention span. And, in its blatant camp and drollery, it's also a very British night out.

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