Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne (London Wonderground 2015)

Nocturne, Black Cat Cabaret’s latest London Wonderground production, concerns a weary London commuter who nods off on the tube and embarks on a journey through his troubled subconscious, led by “queen of the night” Lili La Scala.

Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)

Nocturne’s trump card is its outstanding cast of all-star circus performers.  Katrina Lilwall is captivating on aerial chains, soaring above the audience as her well chosen soundtrack builds to a crescendo. Bret Pfister performs a fabulous aerial hoop routine packed with creativity, superb control, beautiful shaping and flexibility. Acclaimed American variety entertainer Amy G is an all singing, dancing, roller-skating, slapsticking injection of energy, but her stage time seems disproportionate and prolonged at times. I can understand the desire to make the most of a multi-talented guest star while they are in town, but it is in danger of becoming too much of a good thing.  Tower of brawn Nathan Price puts on a thrilling display with his petite hand to hand partner Isis Clegg-Vinell, but an alarming incident which sees Isis’ pretty head smack the deck triggers a collective gasp of horror which is never addressed or assuaged.

Katrina Lilwall in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Katrina Lilwall in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)

Despite the undoubted talent of the assembled cast, Nocturne’s biggest flaw is the very thing which director Simon Evans declares to be its strength: the theatrical narrative, which is persistent but largely uninteresting. In his Black Cat debut, commuter Ben Cutler is a handsome but rather vacant protagonist who unfortunately inspires little concern or engagement. Plot-driven conversation and choreographed interludes between performances are often punctuated by awkward pauses, vague facial expressions and a lack of chemistry and communication between cast members.

Ben Cutler and Cabaret Rouge in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Ben Cutler and Cabaret Rouge in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)

An irritating aspect of Nocturne is the unimaginative, heavy-handed attempt to make it ‘sexy’ and risqué, which amounts to a scantily clad chorus of Cabaret Rouge dancers walking in circles and vogueing half-heartedly, a tedious faux-sapphic kiss, implied fellatio and lazy nudity. Evans describes Nocturne as “the most base and hedonistic thing I’ve seen in a good while.” Whether he truly believes that or just wants to flog tickets is unclear, but in reality Nocturne is about as “base and hedonistic” as a bawdy seaside postcard.

Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)
Cabaret Rouge in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Cabaret Rouge in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)

Headlining hostess Lili La Scala is, as always, a sumptuous feast for the eyes and loins, oozing glamour in opulent headdresses, glittering capes, and a second skin of twinkling gems that could make a jackdaw howl with jealousy.  Her vocal is haunting and powerful, and there are touches of her signature wit and comic timing which makes her so successful as a host in general, but overall her delivery in Nocturne is inhibited by an unimaginative and sometimes positively toe-curling script. Listening to a poised, eloquent, intelligent artist like Lili being made to utter such crass, empty phrases as “fingering her G-string” and valiantly soldiering through Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball (a song choice which gives what could have been an emotive climax in the show the emotional depth of a histrionic teenager) is a clear waste of her considerable talent.

Lili La Scala and cast in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Lili La Scala and cast in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)
Ben Cutler and Lili La Scala in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon  (Review: Black Cat Cabaret - Nocturne)
Ben Cutler and Lili La Scala in Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015. ©Jason Moon (Review: Black Cat Cabaret – Nocturne)

With such an incredible lineup of world class performers, Nocturne could be a stunning variety show. But attempts to ‘elevate’ it beyond that format (which five star sellouts like La Soiree prove can be unforgettably entertaining) and tell an engaging story currently lack sufficient depth, authenticity and cohesion. That said, the level of skill and artistry on show from the circus stars makes Nocturne well worth a visit.

Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne at London Wonderground 2015 runs until 11th September.

Holli-Mae Johnson
Holli-Mae Johnson

Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli-Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created nine years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.

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