House of Burlesque has returned to London Wonderground’s evocative, twinkling Spiegeltent for a third year with a new production playing a string of dates in August and September. It’s a high-energy, well paced and enjoyable show, boasting a high quality line-up of accomplished soloists, but is let down by the standard of in-house costume and lacklustre troupe numbers.
As the mistress of ceremonies, Tempest Rose is a charismatic, convincing lead; earthy, buxom and self-deprecating. Although the induction of burlesque virgins and birthday/hen party shout-outs can be tedious for regular show-goers, taking the time to address and involve the crowd with her customary warmth, charm and cheek created an excited, responsive atmosphere which rarely died. Her strong, soulful vocal was at its best in her opening rendition of Paul Anka’s swing version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, but her tuning and power suffered somewhat in the second act when greater movement and physical comedy was required.
The production’s four-member troupe, the House of Burlesque Belles, failed to match the polish and skill of the solo artists. They opened the show with the weakest number of the night: a rococo cliché with bland, poorly synchronised choreography, pantomime expressions and cheap fancy dress wigs. The finale was an improvement with more thought put into the striptease choreography, but their movement as a group was still too casual, and while their attempts at a commendable range of tassel twirling tricks were committed, they varied in success. Their highpoint was a visually striking, futuristic ultraviolet routine which closed the first half; a huddle of robotic bodies snaking, shaping and grinding to a thudding electro soundtrack. They were joined in this number by hoop performer Storm Hooper; her skill level isn’t quite as refined and engaging as some of her London peers, but the visual effects significantly enhanced her performance.
To the bombastic brass of The Dirty Boogie, Lena Mae bounded onto the stage with attack and vitality, her tumbling blonde curls bouncing over a sumptuous stoned red corset and lingerie with a plump red boa bustle. After this promising start the energy visibly slowed; her execution of fairly basic striptease didn’t match the feisty pace of her chosen soundtrack. That said, her polished presentation and sparkling entrance were better than much of the high glamour burlesque currently on offer in the capital.
Delivering the same thrilling creativity, sensuality and stagecraft as some of our most celebrated and experienced male burlesque performers, exciting newcomer Esquire de Lune was jaw-droppingly dynamic and beautifully made, artfully wielding a pair of pheasant fans across his glistening, chiselled torso and leather-bound thighs. I loved the added touch of torn wing stubs protruding from his back – a true fallen angel. In a captivating routine he jerked, leapt, twirled, and postured on the floor, delivering exceptionally swift and skilful fan work. Exquisitely undressed, reclining against a pillar and luxuriating in his own beauty, he allowed us a last lingering opportunity to admire him. A boylesque star is born.
Lolo Brow’s seemingly endless cleverness and creativity is a joy to experience. She brings an instantly recognisable and obscenely funny Nigella Lawson parody to this production, making use of edited and recut audio quotes from Nigella’s iconic cookery shows. She demonstrates additional skill by varying expertly between vulgarity and seduction; miming something unspeakable with a grimace, then making us work for every smouldering reveal of nubile flesh. That and a dash of signature frenzied twerking for good measure makes for a distinctive and memorable act.
Aerial artiste Jo Foley took centre stage in a shimmering nude bodysuit and demonstrated flexibility, contortion and agility on cascading red silks. The routine was underwhelming at first; as well as a couple of awkward readjustments, some potentially beautiful positions were held too briefly to be appreciated. Eventually she pulled out some crowd-pleasing, suitably impressive manoeuvres and brought the act to a satisfying climax, but her facial expression was vacant throughout and she didn’t engage at a deeper level.
As the show drew to a close, Bettsie Bon Bon stepped out to St James Infirmary, crowned with an exotic black headdress. She slowly and deliberately peeled away a sheer robe and absinthe gown to reveal a beautiful panel skirt, delivering textbook bump ‘n’ grind and pausing to frame and present her body with her hands in a manner that would make Jo Weldon proud. Then she’s all feline snarls, licked lips and naughty eyes, tossing her hair and biting a glove between her teeth like freshly caught prey. Bettsie’s eyes are remarkably expressive, engaging the whole tent in an intimate, silent conversation and demanding sufficient applause before she permits a glimpse of shoulder or thigh. Finally, with a primal surge of strut and abandon, she brought the number to a swaggering, cheek-trembling climax.
The main, constantly distracting weak point in this production is the standard of the in-house costumes: tatty, poor quality wigs, and cheap novelty stockings and net skirts with a tacky red and black colour scheme. The combination of these off-the-rack items with better quality, customised and embellished pieces was particularly jarring; many of the ensembles look unfinished and mismatched. Tempest’s costumes were generally of a higher standard and the invited solo artists’ costumes were considerably better, but the regular appearance of these problematic outfits diluted the overall aesthetic impact.
Tempest deserves praise for her excellent cast selection. The variety of styles, disciplines, and representation of both classic and neo-burlesque was extremely well balanced, paced, and effective; there really was something for every taste. In-house costumes and troupe numbers aside, House of Burlesque is a thoroughly enjoyable show and a respectable representation of the art form.
Reviewed by Holli-Mae Johnson.
House of Burlesque at London Wonderground 2014. 7th August – 18th September. £15.50 Book Tickets.
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.