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This Is Cabaret: The Liberation of Colette Simple (22/09/14)

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It’s your everyday tale of suburban mundane goes suburban insane in this short but stylistically inventive musical comedy from Spatfeather Theatre at Jacksons Lane. The Liberation of Colette Simple might not quite have the substance to match its more outlandish cosmetic quirks, but its humour and playful tone keeps it light, bright, and, coincidentally or not, pretty simple.

The entire cast of characters in Liberation is played by just two actors, Nathalie Carrington as primarily Colette, and Gary Tushaw, who plays amongst others, a power mad policeman, a pernickety old woman (complete with bonnet and strap around bosomed dress) and…a talking, opinionated canary. Costume changes between each character happen visibly on stage, creating a farcical atmosphere that’s only continued as Colette steps outside the front door of her neat, pink store to discover (using a delightfully unexpected drop of grass cuttings from the ceiling) that someone has wrecked havoc on her petunias. And, like the predictable turning of a cog in a Stepford Wife, that’s all it takes for our protagonist to suddenly go quite off the rails.

Adapted from the one act Tennessee Williams’ play The Case of the Crushed Petunias, Liberation builds upon this short but surreal piece of quaint madness by threading musical numbers in-between the mirth.  In an intriguing twist there isn’t one single lyricist for the entire play – instead the work is shared between eight different composers of various backgrounds – from cabaret king Desmond O’Connor to spoken word artist Charlie Dupré. It’s a shame then that the songs themselves generally don’t feel like more than just a springboard for a wacky character’s humorous personality before we’re launched into a different platform for a different character. There’s few ditties that you’ll fully remember once you’re sauntering out to Highgate – the policeman’s “Town Anthem” stands out for its satirical edge, but most of the rest is nearly indistinguishable, especially surprising given the fact that they’ve been written by eight supposedly distinct composers.

And yet, even given the generally average song list, it’s hard not to like the brash preposterousness of Liberation. James Cotterill’s set is a treat, gradually falling apart as Colette’s world of ordered petunia rows disintegrates, and both Tushaw and Carrington cope well with the frenzied pace with the former in particular morphing from one insane caricature to the next with hilarious aplomb. Once you look past the loud, brash excitement of delirium that infects the musical you won’t find very much else to reflect on, but then, in a musical about an American woman with a talking canary who freaks out over some dead flowers, that’s probably for the best.

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This Is Cabaret: Fraff (A Review In Five Terrible Poems) (17/09/14)

Curated and compered by alt-drag enfant terrible Scottee of Camp, Hamburger Queen, and The Worst Of Scottee fame, new project Fraff kicked off earlier this month with a show at Rich Mix. The night brought together an impressive collection of alt-cabaret luminaries to try out poetry or spoken word. Jonny Woo, Michael Twaits, Bryony Kimmings, Barbara Brownskirt, Isabel Tennyson and Hunt & Darton all stepped up to the mikeand, in homage to Fraff‘s theme, here are my own thoughts in poetic form.

(Limerick)

There once was a critic called Laura

But writing normal reviews just bored her

So she went to review FRAFF

And took up the chance

To write poetry of the lowest order!

(Haiku)

Scottee hosts the night

A dyslexic  disco ball,

Gives it some structure.

(Ode)

Oh! Barbara Brownskirt,

You, the poet on the bill with the zipped up anorak cowl

Gleaming like the waterproof helmet of a Grecian Queen.

Your witty Peckham lines and your scowl

Producing laughs from us, as if laughing machines.

Whilst many of the poets were keen to use jokes –

It was yours that did the loudest chuckles evoke.

(Acrostic)

All of us get the chance

Using up the pens to hand

Doodling is not alright

Instead it’s poems we must write

Eventually Scottee reads them out

Next we vote without a doubt

Could the blanked out film script win?

Er no, it’s the vet with the toothy grin.

(Rondeau)        

Hit and miss

But still much bliss

Anarchical whimsy in central Shoreditch.

Miss and hit

They shouldn’t quit

The night for yes I will admit

This poetry is just a bit

Harder than I can have wished

Hit and miss

Miss and hit

Yet just enough humour and jokes to make it

Worth a watch, worth a sit

So I certainly won’t dismiss

Fraff as poetry with a needless twist

Because it’s not.

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This Is Cabaret: Celia Imrie’s Laughing Matters (13/08/20)

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There’s nothing new or startling about Celia Imrie’s one woman cabaret Laughing Matters at the St. James Studio, but that doesn’t seem to matter because it’s Celia Imrie. Even when the vocals are strained and the song choices a little predictable, she still manages to carry off an enjoyable romp by her sheer stage presence alone. It’s a mighty advantage that, in the hands of a much lesser known actor, could have left the night feeling flat. It does beg the question, though, as to why, with her star still burning so bright, Imrie has felt the need to continue with her revue at all.

But continue, from her first run at the Crazy Coqs in September, Imrie does. From Noël Coward’s There Are Bad Times Around The Corner to sketches about the increasing difficulties of introducing Yma Sumac on first name terms at a party where the guests include Ugo Betti and Oona O’Neill, there’s little chance of not being able to find something to laugh at, as Imrie winks and shrugs along with the best of them. Inbetween songs we hear anecdotal snippets from her best-selling autobiography The Happy Hoofer – including how she got her part in the film The Exotic Marigold Hotel, and even a little nod to her “memorable” performance as a fighter pilot in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a role which lasts all of a few seconds on the screen.

The atmosphere is one of meeting an old friend for the first time in yearsand being  a few drinks into the night. Although there are occasional slip ups, you feel you can forgive Imrie because of her mischievous and loveable persona. It is because of this that it can feel as if the actor isn’t particularly stretching herself at times. The show does feel pretty safe – the silly yet ultimately a bit naff costumes highlighting that, for Imrie at least, this is all a bit of fun, a nice change of pace, but nothing really monumental.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but, when singing is clearly not Imrie’s strongest point, it seems strange to base a show around a cabaret performance unless it’s just to let her hair down for a few days. It is certainly reminiscent of the Monty Python reunion just a few weeks ago, where John Cleese, Michael Palin et al were clearly enjoying being allowed to simply mess around and have fun again – whether or not they were actually adding anything new or particularly funny to their old repertoire didn’t matter to them, or, judging by the laughs, to the audience.

And there are certainly laughs to be had due to Celia Imrie’s comedic performances. She doesn’t necessarily achieve her aim of showing us why laughing matters, because there isn’t necessarily an aim or real narrative in her show except to have a bit of a giggle. Imrie has shown that she can definitely push herself harder than this but if you’re happy to see her simply having fun and join in yourself, then there couldn’t be a better night to do it.

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This Is Cabaret: Conjuring At The Court Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary (03/07/14)

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Corny jokes, slick tricks and even free slices of cake are the order of the day at the jam packed 5th birthday of the magic showcase Conjuring At The Court. Whilst some segments of the night can be ever so slightly hit and miss, the sheer number and variety of acts on offer soon makes up for these moments and on the whole provides an evening that is a great night out.

Held at the end of every month at the Drayton Court Hotel near West Ealing, Conjuring At The Court takes a different selection of magicians and illusionists from across the country each time and gives them a slot to perform in. You might find yourself at one moment amused by an old fashioned sleight of hand card trick, then in the next  amazed by a baffling “how did they do that?” mind reading performance – all within the space of one evening’s entertainment.

This year’s fifth birthday celebrations for CATC were no different, starting off with the dry wit of American Thom Peterson and his superb illusions, such as making a drawing of a spoon appear to change shape before our very eyes (move over Uri Geller). If some of his comments seemed a little acerbic and off colour then they were nothing compared to the final act, the rather deliciously catty Mel Mellers, whose magic act at times seemed to come almost second to insulting the audience (and more than likely distracting them from his tricks at the same time). Indeed, comedy runs high throughout the night and occasionally becomes slightly unsuitable for the younger ears of the audience, although it’s certainly lapped up by the majority of the crowd.

Stephen Barry dutifully compères between acts and brings a relaxed warmth to proceedings – his jokes aren’t always as sharp as his fellow magicians but his beaming smile helps keeps things jovial. The setting itself in the basement of the Drayton takes you to a much more intimate and ring side seat kind of magic than we’re now used to seeing from TV’s glitzier offerings like Penn and Teller. Indeed there’s not much in the way of lighting or special effects throughout the evening at all, simply rows of audience seats and a small stage area with dressing screens either side.

However, that’s perhaps the very point of CATC – a night that is all about celebrating magic in its purest form, rather than creating some sexed up faux Broadway performance. Every evening offers the chance to see hard working performers plying their art for the simple reward of entertaining; some big, some small, some old, some new, but all doing their best to shock and awe, and many of them succeeding.

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This Is Cabaret: The Black Cat Cabaret (17/06/14)

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Prepare for a night of fun, flair and frisky behaviour as The Black Cat Cabaret slinks over from its regular haunt at the Café Royal’s Grill Room to occupy the smoky realms of The London Wonderground’s amazing Spiegeltent.

Inspired by the absinthe-fuelled music halls in Montmartre, Paris in the late 1880s (not least the contemporaneous venue Le Chat Noir), The Black Cat Cabaret adds some modernity into the eccentric Parisian cocktail of traditional cabaret. There’s a dash of acrobatic wonder, a sprinkle of old-fashioned sing along and a constant sliver of spectacle and drama. Guiding us through the evening like a suited apparition of the damned is impresario and compère Dusty Limits. His promise to shock and awe our rather bourgeois group of onlookers generally lives up to expectations. With such a great variety of acts, it means that even if one or two fall flatter than others, there is generally enough skill and range on show that it’s difficult not to find several acts to champion and revel in.

Take, for instance, the comedic stylings of hula hoopist extraordinaire Jess Love. Although clearly a very talented performer – in 2009 she broke the world record for the most number of hula hoops spun at once (115!) – Love doesn’t let the hooping dominate the entire performance, which instead leans much more towards humour. Indeed, at one point her act sees her getting completely undressed in a cheeky last ditch attempt to keep her hula hoops spinning. It’s refreshingly different and a great break from some of the more serious acts we see throughout the night. However, provocative and captivating aerialist pair Katherine Arnold and Hugo Desmerais, who perform feats of wonder inside and around a hanging cage, add something from the more reflective side of the spectrum of performances on the night. It’s an act that is especially intense due to the additional element of the house band and some excellent lighting choices, as the booming beats and shady spotlights complement the mystery of the performance to a tee.

The music throughout the night excels, knocking every element of drama or frivolity up a few more notches. Impossible to miss too is the magnificent Spiegeltent where all of the action takes place – almost another character in itself. If you ignore the little onsets of technology apparent inside, it’s very easy to imagine oneself ensconced in the dark caverns of a seedy 1920s theatre, as the audience sit in the round against the backdrop of a small circular stage, where our performers twist and turn for our amusement.

You can catch The Black Cat Cabaret at the London Wonderground until September, each night varying slightly in the artists and acts on show. This nights’ acts, although not individually always outstanding, thrive as a collective – a magical trip back to the days of mysterious glamour all within the space of one thrilling evening.

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This I Cabaret: Batt On A Hot Tin Roof (05/06/14)

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After a stint at the Crazy Coqs last August, the Batt is back. No, not Christian Bale in another Christopher Nolan instalment of rubber-clad and gruff-voiced comic book histrionics but Bryan Batt, known to some as Mad Men’s Sal Romano and, judging from his latest performance at the Crazy Coqs, now known by many more as a born entertainer and cabaret singer.

This is a night that’s all about Bryan, something that’s impossible not to realise as soon as his charming yet impressively slick Broadway patter kicks off the show. Although never once actually personally engaging with any individual members of the audience, somehow Bryan’s likeable charisma and enthusiasm means that you’re often drawn into his stories anyway, whether it’s the time he sat on the hospital bed with his dying father and finally bonded over a fuzzy TV showing baseball musical Damn Yankees, or the tale of an obsessed fan who went mad when they found out that Bryan wasn’t performing as advertised in a play and went to great lengths to ensure they met him in the future. Although clearly spotlessly rehearsed and polished to a tee, it’s this charisma that keeps the night from seeming sterile and over-produced while still being heaps of fun.

And Batt is clearly having a lot of fun himself. The night is a hotchpotch of his two obvious loves – the deep south of New Orleans and the Broadway razzmatazz of New York – and, even though his one man act was devised after Batt was asked to create a benefit for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there’s a lot of lightness and laughter alongside the ballads touching on these more serious issues too. Through a wide smile and sparkling teeth Batt sings a hilarious ode to a woman of dubious sexual morals (not quite how he puts it), before flipping to a rip-roaring rendition of Petula Clark’s Downtown then launching into an earnest and naïvely acted version of Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s In Love With You. You can tell Batt is just waiting to leap back into some mischief every time he waltzes over to the mic after swigging a quick drink – the Crazy Coqs is a perfectly intimate setting for his kind of personal anecdotes peppered with quickfire gags and quirky yet somehow still heartfelt numbers.

As Bryan himself puts it, some of the songs have nothing to do with anything else in the set list at all – he just happens to like them – and it’s this kind of happy go lucky charm that runs throughout the night. The gags can be a little cheesy and the over expressive gestures more than a little reminiscent of the kind of “jazz hands” choreography last seen in an episode of Glee, but somehow it doesn’t really matter. With Batt at the helm, it’s difficult not to have the kind of toe-tapping, simple, goofy grinning night that Mad Men’s complicated Don Draper and friends can only dream of.

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This Is Cabaret: Circusfest 2014 Review – Strike!

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Kafka meets Office Space in Strike!, a contemporary circus performance based in a bureaucratic hell of cardboard and clocking in. Whilst at times boxed in by its own grand metaphors of a clockwork office, the second half in particular finally unpacks the hypnotic performances to match up to the demands of director Keziah Serreau’s vision, and take us significantly deeper into her claustrophobic world of compulsive horror.

The five performers that make up the pencil pushers and busybodies of this Brazil-inspired departmental dystopia each take it in turns to be prodded about, tripped up and sometimes in the case of the quite frankly impossibly nimble Olivia Quayle, even thrown around by their colleagues. There’s a sense of constant and claustrophobic struggle with the cast all fighting each other for the upper hand in this small space within Jacksons Lane. Designer Raymon Sarti has created an set that feels constantly on the edge of being invaded, engulfed as it is by multitudes of stacked cardboard boxes that tower menacingly overhead. From overhead comes a continuous flow of the berating shrill sounds of the office mixed alongside a taped voiceover piece that cunningly changes ever so slightly each time we hear it.

As for the props on stage, they mainly consist of a metal desk with a sliding wood panel and a metal chair. These are transformed cleverly into various structures, from an elevator to an aerial cage, with a few simple flips and a little imagination. They’re a great asset to the mise en scène of the performance, which as a whole feels like the strongest element of Strike, but also annoyingly the reason why it occasionally fails to quite hit its mark. Too concerned with getting across the idea of a frantic hive of robotic worker drones, the more theatrical side of the piece can feel a little blunt in its execution.

Once the initial concept is presented, Strike goes up a gear in the second half with the performers playing with our expectations and making more use of their physical circus skills for example on the slack rope and aerial strap that come into play. Without these elements, the first half relies too much on narrative, a problem as there isn’t really any obvious story strand, just little vignettes of power struggles and compliance. These are intriguing on their own, but when brought together not achieving a recognisable whole. Are these scenes all taking place within the same hellish organisation, or is this what life is like for everyone everywhere in this nightmarish land now?

When eventually more acrobatic touches are brought into play in the second half, everything becomes instantly more engaging; for example, the use of the desk as an aerial structure that the group slide and swing into and over a personal highlight. Indeed, as Serreau’s carefully structured world begins to topple, Strike also starts to feel much more innovative – reminding us all that a little chaos isn’t such a bad thing, at the end of the day.

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This Is Cabaret: Swing Revival

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Benoit Viellefon may well have his orchestra, but there’s still something missing from his performance at the Hippodrome casino. At times the ensemble feed us toe-tapping, nostalgia driven hits of delight, but whether it’s the quiet atmosphere (admittedly occasionally broken up by one or two revellers) or the sheer number of jazz and swing numbers on offer, everything is polished, fun, yet never quite fitting together as an exceptional whole.

First to those toe waggling hits though. There’s The Mooche, a Roaring Twenties classic popularised by Duke Ellington, alongside a fantastic trumpet accompaniment for Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, whilst Nat King Cole’s It’s Only A Papermoon is followed by cheeky crowdpleaser Ferme La Bouche  – you couldn’t ask for more in the luxe surroundings of the Hippodrome’s cabaret theatre. It’s obvious from the start that the compact band of musicians are highly skilled and acclaimed players, each solo from the saxophonist to the clarinettist a sheer pleasure to hear and  be entertained with. It’s easy to forget too because everything runs along so smoothly how hard everyone onstage is working, which is of course all part and parcel of the expertise involved.

Benoit himself plays a typically comedic yet charming French gent throughout, leaving little quips for us between songs which his orchestra thankfully counter from time to time, in the casual way a group used to each other will. Occasionally his vocal skills, rough with Gallic twang, feel a little out of place in some of the smoother numbers, but his excellent guitar picking and charismatic verve shine through.

Alongside the swing smashes there’s also some original material performed by Viellefon and the orchestra  – a bold choice to fit alongside the more recognisable tunes. One in particular, Mon Amour, has such an affable French style that on closing one’s eyes it would be quite easy to imagine that one is in fact sitting outside a little Parisian café until late into the last hours of the day, when there’s nothing left but cigarette ash and wine ringed glasses and the faint hums of pleasant song.

Viellefon’s new songs are also a refreshing change from the many respected but occasionally unoriginal picks that make up the rest of set. On the one hand, it’s great to hear Mambo Italiano, as it’s inevitably a crowd raiser, but on the other, it sits uncomfortably amongst some of the other choices; it has been picked it seems purely for its recognisability. As such there sometimes appears to be no rhyme or reason as to whether the group play gypsy swing, Russian folk or 1950s jazz. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a little variety (especially, one hears, in jazz), but it does make the arrangement feel less carefully thought out than it could have been, when really with the talent on display each piece should feel special and inventive.

Perhaps if more people had decided to get up and dance then the combination of songs wouldn’t have mattered so much either way. As it was, only one couple braved the dancefloor – however given their rather irritatingly exceptional moves there might have been a reason why no one else followed suit. Benoit himself seemed mildly miffed at the lack of swinging going on, and who can blame him – his shows at the Hippodrome are meant for those ready to revel rather than relax.  It is, after all, what both man and band do best – providing a largely enjoyable collection of classics to get up and move about to, rather than some deeper reflective thesis on the jazz genre.

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Three Weeks: Transmit (07/04/14)

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It’s a pleasant feeling to realise that there are still some art initiatives out there solely interested in encouraging new work to develop no matter what the end result, and Transmit at Jacksons Lane is certainly one of them.

The night – the first of its kind at the venue – was a showcase of contemporary circus, but one in which the performers were given only one week to cultivate ideas within a shared space at the theatre, their resulting discoveries and interpretations making up the collective performances the audience saw together as Transmit. This naturally meant that many of the pieces performed were unfinished, thoughts left dangling in the air like one of the many ropes or trapezes leaped off and swung from throughout the performances, but this is not such a bad thing. In fact, it felt refreshing to view the many raw and often exciting ideas on offer that hadn’t suffered the sterilisation of repetition – like an artistically focused Speaker’s Corner each segment offered freshly formed thoughts for the audience to reflect upon in their absence, gestures to muse on and music to recall on the walk home on a dark Saturday evening.

Ten companies and artists were invited to the residency, and each shared a short and often minimalist performance with the audience. Some were purely physical, some interactive, many had slithers and chinks of comedy built within. Performers Willow and Grania used a metaphor of a hanging microphone constantly escaping their clutches to speak out about sexism and their own experiences in struggling with the glass ceiling – a simple and slightly Beckettian device that could have felt overdone and hammy, if it were not for the warmth of the artists on stage.

In the second act, Molly Orange presented Step Ball Change, a riotous wink at the flapper era of the Roaring Twenties, with the Charleston and tap dancing firmly in tow. One of the most intriguing yet eventually equally hilarious pieces came from Kaveh Rahnama & Hazel Lam – an apparent look at the plight of Japanese women after Hiroshima, it was told through trance like movements and almost impossible contortions, which blossomed brilliantly in the final frame with an unexpected but perfectly timed punchline.

These were just some of the highlights on offer, as to recount every single artist, although they each deserve their praise and scrutiny, would not be seeing the point of the evening. Hopefully this marks the start of a series of similar short showcases at Jacksons Lane, each with different thoughts, styles and presentations, but each working together to provide a creative programme in North London that truly encourages the new, bold and exciting.

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This Is Cabaret: Aaron Weinstein (13/03/14)

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Amongst the wry smiles and sleepy nods of freeform appreciation found within its onlookers, one whispered audience remark during the set of New York jazz musician Aaron Weinstein sums up the mood not only of the audience but also of the night as a whole. “He’s a lovely young man” sighs a nearby admirer, clearly in awe.

Indeed, with his measured yet skilful display of talent – yet also keen self-awareness – it’s clear that Weinstein is very much the epitome of that rare paradox that Woody Allen, another moderately well-known Jewish entertainer, displayed all those years ago: non-threatening yet, crucially, underneath it all, supremely talented.

There is certainly no denying Weinstein’s ability with a stringed instrument. Switching between the violin and the mandolin, he riffs on melodies ranging from frenzied riffs from the musical Gypsy to earlier and more melancholic songs such as After You’ve Gone, constantly bringing new strains and detail to classic tunes from American jazz history. In between, Weinstein, in his wonderfully self-deprecating way, mumbles monologues about his mother or, in one particularly amusing anecdote, reflects on his time spent teaching a man with a glass eye how to play the violin. It’s these sparse yet absurd vignettes that will draw comparisons between Weinstein and the aforementioned Allen the most, and yet it seems unfair and almost a cliché to compare the musician to the comedian simply because of their style of joke and cultural background, when to judge Weinstein on comedy alone misses the point entirely.

In fact, more can be discovered about Weinstein from his music than his comedic presence, which whilst certainly welcome, merely acts as an amusing but never quite genuine pause inbetween his much more soulful jazz performances. A night of dark Jewish skits and some slight musical interludes this is not, but instead, as Weinstein says himself, his own personal take on The Great American Songbook, as we listen and reflect on classics such as Pennies From Heaven and Ain’t Misbehavin’ alongside pianist Dave Newton’s skilful accompaniment.

At the end of the night Weinstein returns on stage to play an encore of Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the mandolin, once again imaginatively realised and dexterously finger picked. Even a pin drop (or an ice cube from a glass of whiskey given the venue’s luxurious art deco settings) would have been picked up as deafening as the audience sat enthralled by the final acoustic number. A pleasingly intimate way to end the night, and a telling example of where Weinstein’s power in performance truly lies, namely amongst his experimental yet somehow always still nostalgic music.