Review: Briefs (London Wonderground 2016)
It’s a Tuesday night but the queue outside the Spiegeltent at London Wonderground buzzes with the excitement of a weekend crowd. It’s been four years since Briefs first came to London and in that time they’ve built a loyal gay following, accompanied tonight by a smattering of large groups of women. They are all united in their suspicion of those of us in the much shorter press queue, and as the doors are opened I understand the sideways glances; there is a literal stampede for the best seats in the house.
The opening number, a riot of sharp choreography, lip synching and stripping that climaxes in a UV-infused effusion of white ostrich feather fans and tight, white Calvin Kleins is slick and joyful, the embodiment of Briefs’ playful, smash-and-grab attitude to gender and popular culture. My companion – a Briefs virgin – is ecstatic. As the music dies, Shivannah, our host, takes the stage.
Fez Fa’anana’s alter ego is simply wonderful; a hugely accomplished compere who charms us in seconds and keeps us firmly on side throughout the show. She grants permission, calls us out, loves us and disdains us in equal measure. She concedes that much of the show hasn’t changed, and if there is one thing to fault her on, it is returning to this topic several times rather than letting the cast shine as they are.
First out is aerialist and contortionist Thomas Worrell. Confident and assured, Worrell treats us to a hugely accomplished routine with dazzling lines and extraordinary flexibility and grace. His musicality is genuinely wonderful but it is his gaze that is most powerful, connecting with the audience in a sly dance of the masculine and feminine, all of it infused with an unwavering sensuality.
Louis Biggs delivers a geek-meets-schoolboy burlesque featuring an array of yo-yo tricks. It is doubtless accomplished, but the characterisation is rather heavy-handed and the punchline feels a little forced. Similarly, new cast member James Welby gives a spirited performance as a lip-synching, vogueing, stripping dominatrix with impressive costuming and moves, but the act lacks the satirical bite Welby’s predecessor brought to the show.
Next out is Captain Kidd in a trashy, cowboy hula hoop burlesque. Kidd does trashy so well; charming and repulsive in equal measure. Skilled though his hula hooping is, it is his face you want to watch; every expression is a masterclass in owning the space, connecting with the crowd and delivering a story.
This is followed by Biggs and Lachy Shelley in a skipping and tumbling act, complete with mullets and wife-beaters, parodying the typical Australian man. It is entertaining and skilful, playing to both performers’ strengths. Shivannah treats us to a magic show, silliness combined with some genuinely impressive tricks but both delivered with deadpan disdain that makes the whole thing all the more charming. What a delight.
Hailing from New York City, Evil Hate Monkey is the only non-Australian in the troupe and he deserves extra special praise for delivering a healthy dose of ‘pay back’ to the man sitting behind us who talks through the entire show (why do people pay to see live entertainment and then talk through it as if it was television?) by picking him as his victim in his banana peeling clown piece. Watching a man who has shown zero respect to every performer on that stage get face-fucked with a banana by a man dressed as a circus monkey is a special moment indeed.
Following this schadenfreude-laced treat is the dog-show set piece featuring the entire cast as owners or dogs. If memory serves, the act has some new tumbling and juggling sections but still ends with a coprophagic climax sure to shock first-time visitors. It is entertaining and accomplished in equal measure, delivering, as all the groups acts do, an impact that some of the solo pieces lack.
Worrell’s second act, on tissu, being a case in point. Although it features some hugely accomplished and controlled drops, the act lacks the conviction and connection of the hoop act, and consequently feels like mere spectacle. Biggs’ second act however, a hat manipulation routine that combines street dance with impressive athleticism and rhythm, delivers way above his first and is charming, warm and full of good-humour.
Taking the show into the home stretch, Evil Hate Monkey performs his banana ballet burlesque, a well-constructed and skilled piece of characterisation and strip tease. And finally, the front two rows discover what all the plastic sheeting is for as Captain Kidd performs his bird of paradise act, transforming from exotic bird bedecked in glorious plumage to accomplished trapeze artist and playful, sensual pin-up boy, frolicking in the water and mischievously kicking as much of it as possible at the crowd as he swings above them. I think I’ll be safe in the third row, but I am wrong.
As the cast assembles for the disco-tribute finale, Shivannah leaves us with the instruction to ‘get smart’ and ‘look after each other’, telling us Briefs is just about escapism. But that’s disingenuous. Briefs may be silly and playful, but its mix of drag, circus, burlesque and good old-fashioned entertainment actually draws us into a world where masculinity and femininity are deconstructed into a dressing-up box, no fanciful item any more or less valuable than any other, and any combination as good as the next. That’s powerful stuff: the performative nature of gender made truly manifest with a lightness of touch the angels would be proud of.
Shivannah may feel the need to apologise to us for bringing the same show back, but as she says, “politics looks better in two-way-stretch sequins” and that will forever be something to celebrate.
Briefs at London Wonderground 2016 reviewed by Glory Pearl. Purchase tickets here.