Back from a run in Las Vegas, Pandora’s Box is described as ‘an innovative, enchanting display of high class entertainment’ and a dance-focused, erotic revue designed for observation rather than interaction. In reality, this journey through myth and legend is an amateurish, confused affair in need of considerable development.
While sensual storytelling is supposedly at the heart of the show, the script is at times woefully inadequate and at others utterly nonsensical. Our host, The Divine Miss Em, has to deliver a lofty oration about ‘the way of strategy’ to introduce the goddess Athena, and later ask us to think about ‘when we first felt interesting down there’ and ‘delicious delights of the flesh’. The soundtrack to a group number concerning water nymphs in the second half is particularly bizarre, involving a breathy, largely undecipherable voiceover and a sudden unleashing of sexual expletives, which is neither provocative, arousing or in keeping with a portrayal of Ancient Greece. Otherwise, the majority of the music makes a valid attempt to convey mythical drama and mystery. The real musical highlight, and indeed the highlight of the whole evening, is two performances by Sam Sheasby. Initially introduced in the guise of Orpheus and accompanying himself on guitar, he delivers two soulful, heartfelt ballads which earn grateful and enthusiastic applause from the audience, creating the only authentic and emotive moments during the show.
As our narrator and guide through an evening which is supposed to be sensuous and playful, The Divine Miss Em is not the ideal choice. She can be very effective hosting more boisterous affairs where her impressive vocal lung power and no nonsense delivery keeps a crowd enthused and in check, but it doesn’t convey the intended mood and atmosphere here. Her attempts at audience interaction are at best vague, and at worst, toe-curlingly mortifying. ‘Are you naughty, Matt?’ she barks. ‘Not when I’m with my wife.’ Cue crickets and audible shuffling. ‘Are you dripping, madam?’ she enquires later to a horrified silence. In the second half, Em makes a final attempt to drum up some saucy chatter by asking audience members what they call their ‘winkies and foofs’, before seeing us through the final performances and signing off. She initially takes on a specific character as Medusa in an opening song (ably sung but with a speaker-battering backing track and repetitive, laboured lyrics and rhyme), but seems to abandon it later on, coming out at one stage as an even louder, apparently drunker version of herself which just adds to the existing discomfort rather than providing comic relief.
The standard of costume also presents issues from the start. Tacky gold pvc and flimsy, badly fitting basques and plastic armour do nothing to boost production values, although there is the occasional improvement with some pretty embellished bras, shimmering Isis wings and floral headdresses. An especially underwhelming example is a ‘Four Seasons’ routine, which has the dancers in creased satin wraps, stripping down to the most basic layers of fabric, albeit in appropriate seasonal colours. Sam Sheasby spends the first half in distinctly modern, casual clothes but reappears later in a more appropriate toga. Perhaps the toga initially hid itself away somewhere backstage, or perhaps it’s yet another strange creative choice. Crucially, the sparse, low quality costumes, combined with the performers’ overall lack of technique, prevent opportunities for more complex and creative striptease. Sophia BonBelle’s belly dancer costume is a bit more substantial, making use of veils and a more interesting tear-away fabric bra, but that’s as far as it goes. Em initially appears in a suitably snake-like dress as Medusa, but returns later in a bland and unflattering nude slip. The ‘Amazons’ finale is anticlimactic, featuring messy, homemade looking ensembles with distinctly modern, crisp white thongs peeking through, and Lady Catalina wears a thick, distracting and largely unembellished nude body stocking in her final aerial hoop performance.
With a show of this kind where the dancers are semi-nude very early on, the presentation and revealing of flesh has to be progressively varied and interesting, unexpected and creative. The group numbers are formulaic, dated and largely unoriginal, consisting varyingly of flapping, over exaggerated facial expressions and Carry On style running around. The dancers are constantly out of sync and symmetry with each other, and the copious amounts of faux-Sapphic cuddling, jerking and limp stroking in almost every number lacks authenticity and erotic appeal. Much of it reminds me of the routines put together for my school dance evenings and drama school graduations in the nineties and early 2000s when the girls wanted to do something a bit ‘edgy’ and ‘daring’ but were far from the refined, imaginative dancers and choreographers some of them are today. It’s fair to expect a higher level of sophistication and execution in a professional venue like the Hippodrome, which the successful resident shows deliver.
One group number in the second half presents the possibility of better storytelling, greater character development and convincing interaction between cast members. It begins with a song from Sam Sheasby, who is joined by group of girlish dancers bent on seducing him with their tambourines and nubile bodies. Then they are entirely forgotten as Sophia BonBelle, playing a mysterious belly dancer in black and purple, suddenly appears and dances before him with veil fans, stripping away her layers and eventually leading him offstage, presumably to continue their dance in private. What has potential on paper is disappointing in reality. The girls play the same bland and vapid personas as in every other tableau, and Sheasby and BonBelle make little attempt to convey sexual chemistry or genuine interest in one another; he strolls offstage after her without a hint of passion or urgency. It could have been so much more.
The solo numbers are generally more substantial and thought out, but at times confusing. The goddess Hestia, performed by Eivissa Rose, is announced as a virginal goddess of the hearth and home, but the routine seems to focus entirely on the hearth: a goddess in gold with shimmering Isis wings, complete with fire torches which are briefly waved around and then gone (why bother?) and a rather ungraceful and far from virginal rip-off panty removal. Vanessa VaVoom performs a solo as Athena, wielding a thick branch in place of a more obvious weapon, which seems a bizarre choice. She gives an energetic display of contortion, twists and leaps which make a committed attempt to match the drama of the original soundtrack, but her face is expressionless throughout and her floor work segment is entirely lost beyond the first row of tables. There is also a duet from Sam Sheasby and Emerald Windsor in the roles of Hades and Persephone respectively, but the number falls flat, with fumbled clothing removal, a shaky lift with a heavy landing, and an overall lack of intensity.
The show’s creator Lady Catalina is the clear headliner of the production and makes a convincing first appearance as Hera, queen of the gods, bathed in a well designed celestial spotlight. She has delicate features and a convincingly regal, pampered quality about her which makes the role ideal. The number itself fails to titillate; in a moment she is down to pasties and a thong and her handmaidens make a half-hearted attempt to bathe her in a basin most of the audience can’t see clearly, followed by more clichéd stroking and pressing against each other. She returns at the end of the show as Selene, Goddess of the Moon and performs an aerial hoop routine, but her transitions on the hoop lack elegance, the choreography is repetitive, and potentially beautiful positions are held awkwardly at angles the audience can’t appreciate, which suggests a concerning lack of awareness.
While it has been made clear that considerable personal investment and passion have gone into Pandora’s Box, as well as efforts to produce something different to a more traditional ‘gown, glove, and balloon pop’ burlesque show, there is, regrettably, little to praise or recommend. Perhaps if the show chose to embrace the successful formula of audience inclusion and playful escapism embraced by London’s leading burlesque productions they might make it more endearing and enjoyable, but in its current state its flaws are all too obvious and unforgivable.
Pandora’s Box at the Hippodrome Casino, London, reviewed by Holli-Mae Johnson.
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.