Earlier this month, purring burlesque popstress Miss Polly Rae brought established London favourite Between the Sheets, usually in residence at the Hippodrome Casino’s intimate Matcham Room, to London Wonderground 2014 for two naughty nights of song and striptease. Expanded for the decidedly larger Spiegeltent space and refreshed with sizzling new numbers, the show was typically candid and outrageous in its exploration of love, seduction and sex, dipping into the realms of fetish, S&M, and prostitution, as well as the more familiar, everyday aspects of relationships.
Polly was a safe pair of hands on sprightly, sugar-toned form as our hostess, presenting signature lounge reinterpretations of pop classics, which on this occasion included successful covers of Missy Elliot and Ginuwine. There were original songs especially created for the London Wonderground shows, too; the show opened with a disarmingly candid ditty ‘Real Love’, in which cringeworthy coital mishaps and bodily functions were discussed with accompanying sound effects, provoking genuine surprise and belly laughs from the audience.
British big-hitter and staple Between the Sheets member Kitty Bang Bang took to the stage early on as ‘the Queen of Pain’, but the performance was a rare miss. Her shimmering black costume and lingerie were gorgeous, but the filler between the few choreographed events in the number was vague and seemed under-rehearsed, and putting out cigarettes on her tongue and drizzling candle wax over herself to finish came too late to add sufficient drama. With a natural talent for creating mayhem and hilarity, she went on to steal the established and popular Between the Sheets Virgin Airways parody as an inebriated, petulant air hostess, and she was back to her defiant, fire-breathing best in the finale.
Phil InGud has made his mark as a strong, confident presence on the London burlesque circuit and makes a substantial contribution to this production. He has his geek-meets-Russian-sexpot Skype date routine down pat, and commits to whatever is required of him throughout the rest of the show, be it prancing around as a leather-bound pony boy at the bidding of mistress Rae, or camping it up as a cheeky flight attendant. His highlight, and indeed the arguable highlight of the whole show, is an intense, contemporary dance duet with Callum Macdonald late in the second half, in which they spar and embrace as a pair of wounded, passionate lovers. After a show depicting heterosexual sex and explicit banter, the duet is a wholly unexpected and moving piece which sticks in the mind. Callum is less well known but is extremely professional, entertaining and charismatic throughout, committing commendably to his peppy persona in a somewhat awkward and prolonged plug for the show’s sponsor.
Sharing hosting duties and allowing Polly to take part in various group numbers, Bristol based comedienne and emcee extraordinaire Ophelia Bitz joined the regular Between the Sheets cast members for the London Wonderground run. Winning the crowd over immediately with her customary charm, quick wit and self deprecation, she plunged into an animated examination of masturbation and oral sex which led to an outrageous segment of audience participation, during which two audience members were cheerfully coerced into demonstrating their oral technique on hollowed out chunks of cucumber. She returned to entertain the crowd with Diving in Muff Again, a Marlene Dietrich tribute lamenting an addiction to cunnilingus.
Sophie Zucchini has come on leaps and bounds, growing and developing from a Polly Rae protege to fully fleshed soloist and core cast member Madame de Voila, who commands attention. In this production she performed in partnership with Stephen Williams. Their first duet – a fusion of dance, balance, and aerial chains – needs development; some holds seemed unsteady, the choreography was stiff and hesitant at times, and overall the number smouldered rather than building to a climax. They performed a second, more successful duet in the guise of a courtesan and her client, an adaptation of one of Sophie’s solo routines in which she demonstrates impressive flexibility and athletic stocking peels. Williams also gave a solo aerial performance in the finale which, while appearing more improvised than pre-structured, showed off his core strength. While he is clearly a dedicated team member with genuine skill, he didn’t quite make his mark as a distinctive leading man alongside the charisma and presence of Phil and Callum.
Between the Sheets guarantees a night of refreshingly honest, bawdy and often explicit humour which somehow never feels crass or grubby when paired with high quality costumes, polished production values, top class talent, and the extremely down to earth and likeable Rae at the helm. The humour in the London Wonderground edition was sometimes purile but often relatable, with the audience always in on the joke and invited to laugh at things often only whispered about. This larger-scale edition of the show retains all the trademarks of the top drawer Hippodrome show and has serious potential in its own right. While it was clear at times that the cast were still getting to grips with the space and some of their new material on the first of the two London Wonderground dates, the concept, originality, and quality of the cast is solid and continues to set a standard in the capital.
Between the Sheets at London Wonderground 2014 reviewed on Friday 1st August 2014 by Holli-Mae Johnson
Catch Between the Sheets at the Hippodrome Casino on Wednesdays, and the naughtier late show on Saturdays.
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 twelve 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.