London Burlesque Week 2010 brought a delightful range of themed burlesque shows to Britain’s capital city, including a sexy circus, a twisted cabaret and a 20s/30s themed speakeasy. The week came to a close on Sunday night with the VIP Closing Show & Award Ceremony held at legendary cabaret venue Café De Paris, Leicester Square.
I arrived at 6.45pm and walked straight into the venue – no queuing. The venue bursts with elaborate décor, from the velvet-covered walls, to the glorious chandelier hanging in the centre of the large room. There were plenty of decadent sofas in the balcony area to provide seating, though when seated, one had to look through the ornate iron balustrade to see the stage, obscuring the view a little. The downstairs area was full with tables and chairs set for diners, all of which were reserved.
It must also be noted that the event’s sponsors, lingerie suppliers Secrets In Lace, were impossible to escape: a printed banner backdrop to the stage, digital projections to either side of the stage and flyers upon all of the tables. This provided the event with a glossy corporate polish that one rarely sees at UK burlesque shows, echoing the sponsorship deals of other large entertainment industry shows, such as the Brit Awards. It made the event feel a little less homegrown, especially seeing as the sponsor was a company founded in the USA, not necessarily a bad thing, but it was a little more corporate than I had anticipated.
The 3-part show (interspered with 1-2 award presentations per section) opened at 7.50PM with Armitage Shanks welcoming the audience to ‘an evening of intrigue’, pepping the audience by asking them if they were ready ‘for a celebration’ – a refreshing change from the usual instructions on how to cheer safezone frequently adopted by burlesque comperes. Bubbling audience anticipation for the show made for a wonderful, exciting atmosphere, though we were teasingly left to stew for a bit longer as Armitage Shanks introduced Agent Lynch, International Spokeswoman for Secrets in Lace, on stage to present a short fashion show from the event’s sponsors.
At 8.10PM the first act was introduced; The Follie Dollies, a five-strong showgirl troupe from Cardiff. Their stage-entrance was a little overwhelmed by the surprising soundtrack (a thumping, bassy techno-dance track with repeatitive ‘yippy can-can, can-can’ vocal) and Armitage Shank’s fairground-style ad-lib ‘make some noise!’ hollered as they got on stage. However, their act in and of itself was the most tightly choreographed and executed can-can I’ve seen on a public burlesque stage. Their formations were tight, all were on the same foot, all demonstrated a great deal of flexibility, and each performer looked sincerely joyful on stage with a strong sense of unity and cohesion between the individuals.
The costumes were delightful, black, white, red and blue can-can dresses with knee-length knicker-bockers. In fact, the knicker-bockers served to stress that these girls can entertain purely through dance with no need to compensate for weak movement with more visible flesh. Keeping up the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the can-can, the act reached a crescendo when the women lined up and lifted their skirts to reveal their bottoms, each adorned with a pair of letters, reading ‘WE LOVE CHAZ’. It was a strong, polished and entertaining act, although the forceful and attention-grabbing soundtrack would be better suited to a standing nightclub or corporate audience, rather than a seated and attentive cabaret crowd.
Dinah Might was next up, with an act introduced as a ‘morning-after fan dance’. In her signature red lingerie, Dinah Might performed a sharp and raunchy fan dance (sans striptease) to burlesque-soundtrack favourite Lament. She certainly lived up to her name, with sassy movements and model-like poise. She provided a feast for the eyes by concentrating on making beautiful, feminine shapes with her body, rather than grand dance-based movements. Indeed, her on-floor reveal and subsequent feather fan floor-work are visual treats that will supply me with delight and inspiration for months to come. With a killer figure and a beehive as precise as German engineering, I certainly wasn’t surprised to over-hear an audience member comment ‘She’s stunning, isn’t she?’.
Armitage Shanks provided a brief interlude from the striptease show with what I believe to be an original song. His use of a headset radio mic gave him a great deal of freedom to move about the auditorium and he certainly used this to his advantage, jumping down from the stage to straddle and serenade audience members. This direct interaction served to keep the audience engaged and energised, and his charisma and unique stripey costume meant that he was easy to see even when the lighting didn’t quite keep up with him. His singing style provided a nice contrast to the voices I’ve been hearing a lot of on cabaret stages recently. As opposed to the commonly heard straight-out-of-music-school tones, which are often quite hard, forceful and emotionally numb, his voice was soft, soulful and hypnotic. When combined with his Danny Elfman-esque backing track and fast, witty ad-libs (e.g. ‘I’m an equal opportunity annoyer’) Armitage Shanks provided a strong, complimentary cabaret flavour to the glitzy showgirl revue we’d seen so far.
Rhinestone-dipped Annette Betté was the first performer to take to the stage who had been a previous winner at London Burlesque Week, winning ‘Best Newcomer in 2008’. She wore a cream and lilac showgirl costume, complete with feather-boa bustle.
Dancing to a mambo soundtrack, she opened her number clutching a martini glass and cigarette, both of which were quickly placed to one side to make way for a grand striptease.
Her facial expressions over-flow with seductive pouts and she makes the most of her extraordinarily long legs with perfect pirouettes and a staccato strut.
I particularly enjoyed her body-stocking removal, where she swiftly and cleanly pulled the top section down before using a precisely executed hip wiggle to shimmy the body-stocking clear of her hips and thighs, following up with a sharp kick to remove the body-stocking from her feet and ankles.
Part Two opened at 9pm with ‘crooner extraordinaire’ Captain Anchor. He wore an accurate reproduction of a maritime uniform and sang into a microphone on a stand. When the immediately recognisable introduction to ‘New York, New York’ was heard, and Captain Anchor sang ‘Start spreading your legs,’ I anticipated a humourous parody of the original rat-pack song, but was disappointed when Captain Anchor promptly returned to the Sinatra lyrics. This misdirection occurred later in the act too, as after two verses he peeled off his jacket, leading me to expect a full striptease. Again, I was disappointed when the only additional removal was of his hat.
As a woman close by me commented, it’s ‘so refreshing when a guy gets on [stage]’, but sadly, next to the jewellery-store levels of rhinestones from the previous show girl acts, and the powerful skill illustrated in Armitage Shanks’s first song, this act struck me as better suited to a smaller cabaret stage. Perhaps a male musician with live musical accompaniment (such as Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer) or a fierce male striptease artist (such as British Heart) would have fitted better at this point in the show.
Cici Darling (part of burlesque duo Frivolitease, “Best Troupe 2008”), was next up. She opened her housewife number on a chair, covering her face with a vintage-style housekeeping magazine. Occasionally she dropped the magazine to reveal a facial response to a female voiceover giving instructions on how to be a good wife. Her routine was performed to a blues track about being a housewife, with a transformation point at her finding a pair of red, women’s knickers in the male trousers she was laundering, cuing a soundtrack change to striptease classic ‘Bumps and Grinds’. It was a good housewife act, nothing particularly striking or original, but entertaining, with confident, characterised facial expressions (a nice change from the sultry expressions of the show girls in the opening section).
As a finale, Cici Darling followed-up her bra removal by lighting flash paper hidden in the cups, giving the illusion of a burning bra. I believe this was perhaps included to suggest that the character was tired of being a non-sexual housewife (one of the traditional images of pre second wave feminism), but I went away from the act feeling a little confused. This gesture, in fact, contradicts the character’s transformation from non-sexual housewife to saucy-stripper (the bra being a key-staple to any stripper’s wardrobe) and simultaneously carries heavy connotations of feminism and female liberation. My confusion was further compounded when Armitage Shanks summed up that Cici was ‘Burning her bra for a better tomorrow’. This said, the introduction of a strong, narrative, character burlesque at this point was a pleasant interjection to the previous focus on showgirl style burlesque striptease.
Siren Stiletto (‘Best London Newcomer 2008’), offered us a thoroughly revamped version of her Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number. She made a grand entrance to the stage, carried on the shoulders of a pair of toned, muscly gentlemen (wearing little else but sunglasses, cuffs, and boxer shorts reading ‘SECURITY’). Despite it taking a few moments for the lights to find her, the audience were quick to notice Siren Stiletto’s accomplices and went wild from the very start! Her costume was a tribute to Marilyn’s pink wiggle-gown, covered in what must have been thousands of rhinestones. She truly twinkled on stage. The first part of her number was a striptease excellently and precisely executed to the Swing Cats remix of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. I was occasionally distracted from her performance by her backing-men, who from time-to-time would mime checking earpieces and/or talking into microphones.
I would have hoped that they’d mirror the audience and draw attention to Siren Stiletto, rather than make independent characters for themselves. This aside, Siren Stiletto received an enormous cheer as she lay on her stomach on a large gift-box, centre-stage, and surprised the audience by revealing a rotation mechanism on the top of the box, allowing her to spin around like a saucy roulette wheel. She went on to open the gift box and two helium filled-balloons floated out of the box, lifting large, fist-sized jewels that Siren promptly attached to her pasties. Cue a music change to Bond-theme ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. Her backing men then came to the fore, driving the audience into a frenxy as Siren touched each male individually, ripping the boxer shorts off each man in turn to reveal fitted black briefs, the first with a smaller jewel attached to the front, the second with a larger jewel. It was bawdy, saucy humour that offered a well-received nod to classic British burlesque.
The Knickerbocker Glories (‘Best New Troupe 2009’), were next up with a narrative group performance. Two of the troupe members, dressed in blue, played mischievous imp-ish characters, whilst the third member joined them on stage, dressed in red, to play a grand fairy godmother of romance. The soundtrack opened with Nutcracker classic ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy’ before cutting to ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, as made famous by Bjork. With three performers on stage, each moving to the music, it took me a little while to notice that the godmother character was singing this song live.
The vocals were strong, and the narrative backing provided by the other troupe members was cute, but this act would have packed more punch if the focus were a little clearer. For example, during the louder moments of the song, the lighting show also changed to colourful, flashing disco lights. This lighting would have added interest if the act was a solo singer, but instead, the lighting seemed to compete for attention with the movement of the 2 naughty-nymphs on stage, making it unclear quite where the audience should be focusing; the singer, or the dancers. The audience gave a wonderful response to the naughty nymphs revealling heart-shaped butt pasties (indicating the control the romantic fairy godmother had taken upon their behaviour), a nice touch that I’ve not seen very often on the UK burlesque circuit.
What followed was one of the most magical moments of the entire evening – a duet between Armitage Shanks and Kiki Kaboom. They opted for an unconventional entrance, with Armitage Shanks making his way from the stage, through the audience, to the staircase at the opposite end of the room. Here he found Kiki, though she was not announced to the audience by name. A spotlight lit the couple, Kiki in a fabulous sequinned frock, with a cocktail glass in her hand. Together they sang a marvellous version of Tom Waits’ ‘I Never Talk to Strangers’, with gentle, strong emotional tones in their voices and subtle, captivating body language.
I still get goosebumps thinking about this number – a rare and special pairing, and I do hope that they’ll find a way to work together in the future, even if they are both based in different countries, an entire ocean apart. Shortly after, Armitage lead the audience in a verse of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ – a lovely, down-to-Earth moment in which Kiki appeared honestly coy on stage.
Banbury Cross performed a neo-burlesque classic – the champagne bottle act – to another industry soundtrack favourite, Sing Sing Sing. Until this evening, I’d only ever seen Banbury’s videos on YouTube, I’d never seen her live, and her act certainly had more power in the flesh! Her act carried a simple message of a young woman having a great deal of fun on stage.
Toward the end of the act, Banbury picked up her champagne bottle and walked across the front of the stage, shouting to the audience “D’ya want it?!” before soaking the audience, Formula 1 style, in a pressured jet of bubbly alcohol. A couple of audience members hid under jackets, but for the most part, all joined in with the fun, even the photographer sat in the front row with SLR in hand. Indeed, the reaction from the audince was so strong, it took the whole of Armitage Shank’s closing section speech and interval announcement for them to begin to settle again…
Armitage Shanks returned to the stage to open the third section as a different character. He played a very creepy, elderly gentleman, reminding me of a retired comic book villian. His presentation of a song (sang in Spanish, I believe) held the audience, creating an unsettling, melancholic tone – the perfect introduction for the act that follows.
Melitta Honeycup of Barcelona, Spain, entered the stage as a slightly gothic bride, in a long white gown, teamed with black gloves and veil. She danced to a classic, unobtrusive jazz soundtrack, removing her veil and indicating to the audience that she was missing a wedding ring. Her character soon found a Dear John letter, communicated with props, facial expressions and a disturbing ‘backwards rock music’ accompaniment. I expected this music to erupt into heavy Rammstein-like tones, but I was proven wrong, when it settled into a sound much closer to Nine Inch Nails or Mike Patton – and admittedly, I think this was for the better as a heavy soundtrack would have jarred with the tone of the previous acts. Melitta Honeycup angrily removed her gloves, and speedily peeled out of a skirt, top and PVC girdle to leave her in a costume flexible enough to be worn as she performed on aerial silks. Her silk routine was competant and clean, including good demonstrations of flexibility. Her use of silks was one the highlights of the evening for me – it was very pleasant to watch an act in which the focus wasn’t solely upon striptease.
Introduced as a ‘divine interpreter of cabaret music’, Velma Voluptuous of Stockholm, Sweden, stepped on to the stage in a long, pink sequinned gown. As her name suggests, this woman’s got curves, and it was delightful to see a woman with an individual body-shape take to the stage (all previous performers had looked like UK size 6-10). She sang Edith Piaf’s ‘Vie En Rose’ marvellously, and caught the audience’s attention from the moment she began to sing.
Regrettably the audience mumbled back into their private conversations when Velma began to introduce a striptease to accompany her song and perhaps this act would have been stronger if reduced to a chanteuse piece. Velma’s finale was a charming tongue-in-cheek combination of her singing the powerful, closing lines to the song whilst performing a variety of tassel twirls. As remarked nearby, ‘brilliant, absolutely brilliant’.
Adora Derriere, one part of Australian burleque troupe, Sugar Blue, performed a serpentine and striptease act. Her serpentine cloak was very regal in red with a hint of rhinestoned sparkle, worn on top of a glittery 20s/30s style dress. She finished her costume with tens of strings of pearls around her neck and a rhinestoned 1920s headdress atop a black flapper bob. Admittedly, the combination of serpentine and 20s/30s styling made it difficult not to compare Adora to Britain’s Vicky Butterfly, who has recently made serpentine a signature element of her work. Adora’s act was clean and graceful, but I would have liked to have seen more use of the serpentine – there were a couple of occasions when the cloak was used as a mask to a garment removal, and when this occurred I was disappointed that the fabric had stopped moving, thus breaking the fluid flow of movement so fundamental to a serpentine act. As with Melitta Honeycup’s use of silks, I enjoyed Adora Derriere’s use of serpentine as a contrast to the plethora of glittering striptease acts filling the opening section of the show.
Kiki Kaboom closed this section of the show with her tribute to Judy Garland – a narrative act combining dance, singing, humour and lip syncing, to create a well-structured, thoroughly engaging burlesque number. As always, Kiki appeared open, relaxed and charming on stage – she’s a personal favourite of mine, never failing to entertain in her unique, tongue-in-cheek fashion.
After a final interval, the sponsors opened the final section with another short fashion show, before Catherine D’Lish was welcomed to the stage, with an announcement that her act had been created entirely for the sponsors. As ever, Catherine D’Lish looked fabulous in a costume containing meters upon meters of stiff black tulle. She oozed eroticism and sensuality from every pore, making a tumble of red tresses as sexual as the arch of her perfectly placed foot. I particularly enjoyed her chair work, in which she made sitting with her thighs in box splits look effortlessly glamourous. I’ll also never forget the simple, delicate way in which she plucked her suspender clips from her stockings, as easily as plucking petals from a rose bloom.
The show was brought to a close with a curtain call at 11.15PM, leaving an hour and a quarter for those wishing to stay and mingle to take to the dance floor or order a last round of drinks.
A silent audience eagerly awaited the winner’s announcement in every category; a tension that embraced all in the venue, including those that had not attended the Battle Royale event on Friday night. Upon the winners being announced, I would have loved to have heard a little blurb about their background and the act that won them the prize as, I must admit, I was not always familiar with the work of the nominees and winners.
My favourite prize-giving moment was as Kiki Kaboom presented the award for ‘Best London Solo”’ She gave a touching and down-to-earth speech about how winning this award last year had pushed her career forward, adding that she hoped the winner of the award this year would experience the same effect.
Perhaps the most controversial and fumbled element of the evening came in the form of the award for ‘Best New UK Solo Act’. Upon taking and opening the envelope containing the name of the winner, Armitage Shanks had to double-back and return to the list of nominees. He explained that this year the award would be presented to the best UK-wide new act, as opposed to the best new non-London UK act. He then added another nominee to the list, Ginger Blush, and it came as no surprise when she was announced as the winner.
As to be expected, many audience members felt that this unpublicised change to the rules was unfair. I can understand why the judges had taken this decision, though agree that the lack of communication regarding this change was unprofessional. I suppose a question for the future is whether the London Burlesque Week team ought to continue to separate the new-comers into regional areas (perhaps adding additional categories next year for England/Scotland/Wales/N.Ireland), or whether they drop the London-based New Act entirely and offer a single award for best new act.
One couldn’t escape the disappointment felt throughout the burlesque scenesters in the audience regarding the unpublicised change in rules, which is a shame, as Ginger Blush is a hard-working, fast-developing, engaging and charismatic performer, entirely worthy of winning the award.
Best New Duet/Group
Rebelles De L’Hotel (Antwerp, Belgium)
Gigi & Miss Sprinkle Cake (London, UK)
Phoenix Snow & Frank Diablo (Liverpool, UK)
Gigi & Miss Sprinkle Cake
Best International New Act
Betty Bubbles (Nuremburg, DE)
Dina Doré (Helsinki, FI)
Dora Muse (Paris, FR)
Ivoncita (Stockhom, SWE)
Gia Lafae (Bonne, DE)
Best London Solo Newcomer
Miss Ruby Jewel
Best UK (overall) Solo Newcomer
Ally Katte (Bristol)
Chassy Van Klaas (Glasgow)
Daisy De Luxe (York)
Felicia Noir (West Midlands)
Hetty Heartache (Edinburgh)
Ginger Blush (London)
– Dinah Might’s feather fan floor work.
– Siren Stiletto’s spinning figure atop an oversized giftbox.
– Melitta Honeycup’s use of aerial silks.
– Armitage Shanks’ attention-holding, enigmatic MC’ing…
– …and his duet with Kiki Kaboom.
– Kiki Kaboom’s down-to-Earth, girl-next-door warmth (a pleasant contrast to the hard and heavy corporate event sponsorship, particularly as Kiki awarded the “Best London Newcomer 2010” prize).
– Catherine D’Lish, bringing a high-end finale to the show from a thoroughly respected international performer.
– The structure of the show; 3 parts with 20-30minute intervals worked perfectly.
– A variety of stage lighting techniques.
– The sound technician clearly knew her/his stuff as there were no apparent errors, glitches or mistakes.
– It appeared that few of the acts had been able to have a full technical rehearsal with the lighting technician. This would have assisted the follow-spot to pick up on entrances quicker and would have saved a couple of on-the-spot lighting fixes when red/pink gels washed out costume detailing.
– The unpublicised change to the rules regarding the awarding of the Best UK Newcomer to include performers from London left many people feeling cheated, though I hasten to add that Ginger Blush was entirely deserving of this award, it’s just a shame that it was slightly clouded by the lack of publicity regarding the requirements for nominees in the ‘Best Solo London Newcomer 2010’ and ‘Best Solo UK Newcomer 2010’ awards.
– All the performers on stage were slender, pure-skinned, white women, save for Captain Anchor, Armitage Shanks, Velma Voluptuous and Melitta Honeycup (visible tattoos). With high-end, performers of non-white heritage in the audience (Mysti Vine, Marianne Cheesecake, Bijou Noir), I was quickly wondering why none of them were in the line-up.
The show was about as close to a Moulin Rouge or Crazy Horse style showgirl revue as is possible when hiring individual, self-employed performers rather than a fully rehearsed cast and chorus. All acts were to a good standard, with none jumping out as being undeserving of their place on the stage. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more variety with regard to body shapes, sizes and colours on stage, and hope this will be taken into consideration when the line-up is finalised for the LBW 2011 closing show.
Reviewed by Beatrix von Bourbon
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