Welcome  |  Archive |  Saturdays  |  Press
4 December 2003
Undressed for Success

Maddy Costa: The Guardian

There's one sure way to stand out on stage: bare some flesh. Maddy Costa reports

Every night after the curtain goes up at London's Piccadilly Theatre, something peculiar happens. A woman on a trapeze swings in and out of view, and each time she flashes across the stage, she laughs deliriously and discards another piece of clothing. It is not, as Tom Stoppard must have known when he slotted this scene into his play Jumpers, a sight you would expect to see in a smart West End theatre.

Little has changed in the three decades since Jumpers was first produced. Striptease, for all its theatricality, has never exactly been embraced by theatre. The closest the two have ever come to forming a relationship was in burlesque: the naughty acts that started life in mid-19th-century British music halls with cheeky female performers flashing well-turned ankles, then travelled to the US, where they got more artful and explicit with every passing decade. And it's to burlesque that a new generation of performers and producers are now turning, with the aim of reclaiming striptease for high art and mass entertainment.

That's the impetus behind C'est Barbican, a Christmas show by London club/performance-art promoters Duckie. The show started life last year as C'est Vauxhall in a shabby pub in south London, where it was a surprise sell-out hit. This year it is transferring to London's Barbican. Not bad for a kitsch cabaret that melds the low-rent pleasures of a lap-dancing club with the absurd glamour of the Moulin Rouge.

This being burlesque - which still, in Britain, primarily means satire - you won't see any nakedness in Duckie's show. There is an illusion of nudity, with all the performers wearing traditional flesh-toned body stockings, and a promise of sleaze: among the entertainments that audiences, divided into tables, can order for their personal delectation are a shocking-sounding act called Miss High Leg Kick Does Seven Cocks and the enticing Emotional Striptease. But, says producer Simon Casson, the show is really about "revealing the real person underneath the artifice. The forms it uses might be gurning, tits'n'teeth, but it's more sophisticated than that: it works on different levels, takes you on a journey."

Duckie arrives at the Barbican just as burlesque is becoming more fashionable than it has been in decades. Partly responsible for this is Club Whoopee, a new monthly extravaganza that updates late-19th-century burlesque. Its first Christmas show is inspired by the Russian winter: acts include risque ballet from Russian ballerina Rosaleen Young and resident stripper Miss Immodesty Blaize as Venus in Furs.

Club Whoopee is run by Lara Clifton and Tamara Tyrer, who met last year during a fan-dancing course at the International Workshop festival. Set up 15 years ago to provide fairly esoteric training for actors, the festival was transformed in 2002 by its new artistic director, Luke Dixon, who decided to make it the home of all things burlesque, vaudeville and cabaret. Now workshops offer instruction in the art of being a showgirl, drag for women, corset-making and stripping. "A lot of cabaret clubs have emerged in the past year," says Dixon, "but there's nowhere for people to learn new acts or try out new ideas. It's our job to embrace every aspect of performance: here, strippers can do acting workshops, and mainstream actors can try a more marginal activity like fan-dancing."

Most of all, Dixon is concerned with finding ways of bringing the skills of variety entertainments into the 21st century - a feeling shared by all British burlesque aficionados. "Burlesque clubs in the US just try to imitate 1950s models," says Clifton. "The acts we attract are more bawdy than that, more intelligent and challenging." Performances by Miss Immodesty Blaize and Walter, a fiftysomething man who sings coarse music-hall ditties while stripping out of a corset, look old-fashioned but "are also very modern in terms of their energy and sexual dominance".

The same is true of Lucifire, one of four special guests at C'est Barbican: her individual brand of "grotesque burlesque" is a powerful amalgamation of 1940s fashion, striptease, pyrotechnics and circus-of-horrors skills. At her most coquettish, she sings Marilyn Monroe numbers before stripping to sequined nipple pasties and an elegant g-string; at her most alarming, Lucifire shoots fireworks from her chest and crotch.

This sort of modernisation, says Casson, is crucial. "I love the whole vaudeville history, but you have to take it somewhere. This isn't the heritage industry." He ceaselessly pushes Duckie's artists to develop "short visual performances that are like epic novels, or a Robert Altman film". At the same time, he is nostalgic for "the kind of places Mum and Dad used to go: the Irish club down the road, where you could put on your best outfit and have a good night out". Not for nothing is Duckie described on flyers as "purveyors of progressive working-class entertainment": its work seeks to be populist and avant-garde in equal measure.

Clifton and Tyrer aspire to something very similar: a mix of "high theatre and the lowest humour, that is entertaining and artistic without being self-indulgent". Their club is a place where audiences are invited to dress up: people arrived at a recent nautical evening in sailor suits and elaborate home-made mermaid outfits, while the dress code for the Christmas show includes "Rasputin meets the Snow Queen, Russian Dolls, Dr Zhivagos, Nanooks of the North". In a sense, audiences become part of the show - and that, says Dixon, is precisely the appeal of the new incarnation of burlesque. "People love glamour, and they love the idea that the glamour on stage rubs off on them. There is a rapport between the stage and the audience: people are part of the experience."

For some people, of course, that experience essentially boils down to a chance to see attractive, near-naked women. Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican, jokes that he was attracted to Duckie's show because, "I like smutty cabaret", before offering a more considered account of its appeal. Duckie is aware of the contradictions: Marisa Carnesky, one of the original C'est Vauxhall performers, describes the group's surprise when a show that was supposed to be a humorous subversion of mindless corporate entertainment itself became "a trendy office party: a version of corporate entertainment".

Tyrer hopes that Club Whoopee will continue to expand, but is worried about the implications of that increased popularity. "We want it to keep its intimacy and artistic nature. We don't want something voyeuristic; we don't want it to become cheap." Her collaborator, though, disagrees passionately. "There's nothing wrong with voyeurism," Clifton argues. "I used to be a stripper myself and learned to really enjoy the act. People think they're not allowed to look in that way, but when done well, stripping can be a wonderful thing."

In the end, it all comes down to what Carnesky identifies as an age-old division in western culture: "Art traditionally aspires to spiritual enlightenment; entertainment is more for the loins. Sex is what divides them." C'est Barbican is sneaky in that it promises sex - then withholds nudity and confronts its audience with a smart yet light-hearted comment on their own expectations instead. When it comes to new burlesque, you never know what you're going to get: and that's why it's so much fun.

Caption: The shape of things to come: C'est Barbican, which transformed the Barbican's Pit into a seedy cabaret and picked up an Olivier award for it.

Hotline: +44 (0)20 7737 4043

Stay connected with Duckie:

Join Duckie's A-list.

Website: Leif Harmsen
642,131 visits