In Cabaret des Distractions, the new resident Friday night production at the delightful Cafe de Paris, a pair of lovers, played by Ali Temple and Klodi Dabkiewicz, are cast into a hellish labyrinth and encounter a series of mythological characters sent to challenge, seduce, and test the strength of their love. You are invited to watch the tale unfold while enjoying a gorgeous three course menu, some sparkle in your glass, and luxurious, romantic ambience.
Reuben Kaye, our host for the evening and creator of the show, descends the stairs looking like the lovechild of Beelzebub and Liberace, horned and twinkling as Hades in a collection of dazzling outfits. The length of his introduction is indulgent, but his powerful velvet voice sells his undoubted talent. His audience banter is hit and miss, with some barbs audibly hitting below the belt of the assembled diners. ‘How many beautiful women can you get at one table? Two apparently.’ How much goodwill can you lose with one self-esteem crushing blow? A Titanic ballroom’s worth apparently.
When Reuben finally hands over to the rest of the cast, the star quality solos come thick and fast. Bettsie Bon Bon, devastating in devilish red, is sent to steal the heart and loins of our male lover. Her succulent flesh and predatory grin promise warmth and deep satisfaction. She is utterly convincing; you want to go home with her. In the second half, Anna the Hulagan performs her celebrated fire hoop routine but invites the female lover into the act. She manipulates the hoop around and across her body with fearless swagger. It’s an uplifting, celebratory highlight and we briefly share in the lover’s wonder and enjoyment.
A sudden departure from the mythological theme is a tango threesome with Snake Fervour at the centre, who swallows a rose and a sword in turn. The overall effect is a little too busy and anticlimactic, and Snake’s skilful display seems a little lost amongst the other activity on stage. Chrisalys, matronly in snout and pearls, closes the first half with an increasingly deranged infanticidal barbeque, complete with impressive fire tricks and total commitment to his unsettling character. While it’s sure to stick in the memory, it confuses and repels my immediate diners, and while I personally don’t mind being shocked out of the mood and theme up to this point, it doesn’t add to an overall sense of cohesion or represent an obvious mythological character.
After a mixed first half there is much discussion at our top table during the interval. In a recent interview with Reuben Kaye, Cabaret des Distractions is described as the most theatrical and ambitious show at Cafe de Paris to date – which is debatable – but at this half way stage it feels less cohesive and inviting than a previous, highly praised resident production. We are enjoying the first rate cabaret performances, but we are not so engaged with the theatrical narrative; in fact it becomes intrusive at times. An example of this occurs early on when, with her lover’s head turned by the beguiling Bettsie, the female lover takes to a hoop above the audience and performs a suitably sorrowful and dreamlike aerial display. We are captured completely by the mood, music and finesse of the number, until Reuben’s voice interrupts to continue a story which, at this moment of simple enjoyment, feels unneeded.
There are also questions about where and on whom our primary focus should be. We are not meant to bond with or relate to a lord of the underworld; we can enjoy Hades, but we should be bonding with the human lovers and we are not given sufficient opportunity to invest in them as a couple we care about. As the story draws to a close, the male lover is given the choice to abandon his mate and remain to enjoy the delights and indulgences of Hades’ realm. Unfortunately we aren’t convinced enough of a genuine connection between them to be too concerned. Even as they come together for a final duet, my eye is drawn to the radiant Bettsie Bon Bon loitering on the stairs. The duet shows off their obvious skill, flexibility and strength, and a similar display of unity and connection at the beginning of the night might increase our belief and interest.
There are moments when the drama truly comes alive. Sammy Dinneen in the guise of a hand-balancing Icarus is rock steady as his beautifully feathered legs flap and twist. It’s a highly effective piece of theatre; what could have been a simple demonstration of skill has narrative and poignancy. James Kingsland-Smith is a brooding Minotaur on aerial straps, grabbing the lovers by the throat before caressing them in turn. He demonstrates superb control, creating the effect of constantly falling to earth.
Watching Cabaret des Distractions at this early stage, it is unclear whether the narrative is designed to be a light thread linking all of the excellent solo performances together, or if we are supposed to be utterly swept up in the story and an immersive world. Reuben has made it clear that the performers and their specialities are designed to be the primary focus, but the storytelling sometimes distracts or overcomplicates. As seasoned cabaret goers at a popular mainstream venue, my companion and I are not the primary target audience, and based on the mixed feedback from our table it will be interesting to see how long its commercial appeal endures, but every performer contributes a thrilling standard of skill and physicality to an imaginative show with vividly memorable highpoints. Cabaret des Distractions is a high quality, stimulating spectacle which, with a little more balance and cohesion, could be one of Cafe de Paris’ real triumphs.
Book tickets for Cabaret des Distractions at Cafe de Paris (London, UK) here.
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.