The Hurly Burly Show: Naughty But Nice!, reviewed on Tuesday 10th July.
It has been so interesting following Polly Rae’s career over the past years. I recall watching Polly and her ‘Hurly Burly Girlys’ at the Soho Revue Bar in 2007/2008 and later at the Leicester Square Theatre. Then, after what Polly has described as a life changing meeting with William Baker in 2010, the Hurly Burly Show debuted as a full length West End production. I have seen all three versions of the West End, Baker-directed show, first at the Leicester Square Theatre, then at the Garrick last year and now at the Duchess Theatre in 2012.
I won’t beat about the bush (so to speak) – the first two versions received mixed reviews in both the mainstream press and in the UK burlesque scene. Before the run at the Garrick, they took care to state in the publicity that it was a contemporary, ‘burlesque inspired’ revue. Nonetheless, the public talked about their experience of seeing a ‘burlesque show’ for the first time and some scene members found this frustrating; to them it was yet another mainstream view of burlesque to correct and compete with. I planned to write a review after both of the first two versions but hesitated for a few reasons, a key one being that I felt I would be commenting on something that seemed incomplete, inconsistent and without a confident, solid identity, despite the new budget and undoubtedly talented creative team. However, after seeing the latest version I feel ready and able to articulate a worthwhile review.
My immediate reaction, very early on in the performance on Tuesday, was that this looked and instinctively felt like a much better production, and it proved to be so in terms of overall structure, mood, pace, production values and aesthetic. The remaining cast from previous versions have also upped their game.
“My immediate reaction, very early on in the performance on Tuesday, was that this looked and instinctively felt like a much better production…”
I was a fan of the musical arrangements from the first West End show onwards; I thought the interpretation and re-working of pop songs and the way they were blended and arranged worked really well on the whole and I think the soundtrack is still one of the strongest things about the show. The only technical complaint I had on the night was that the lead vocal was drowned out somewhat when the music really kicked in strongly in some of the numbers and it proved to be very distracting.
One of the major issues I had with the previous production was that the first half was very weak; time killing, ‘hen party’ filler with no real substance or pace, before the actual set began in the second half. Now, that set is distributed over both acts with fresh new numbers added. Additionally, some of the especially crass/crude content which often seemed so deliberate and ‘for the sake of it’ has been dropped, although there are still a couple of random, functionless dildos in the mix!
There are still some well-worn blow job gags and innuendo, but this time it was much more ‘bawdy variety show’ than tedious and sleazy. It didn’t seem as desperate or provocative, possibly because the overall standard of the show was so much higher but also because the show seemed to finally have an established, consistent identity – one that people can take or leave.
Taking the time to introduce each of the Hurly Burly Girlys and establish their characters was definitely worthwhile. It was done in a ‘Cell Block Tango’ format, with each girl having a moment in the spotlight to crack a joke and establish a persona.
All of the solos were much stronger too. Katie Ella Hardwicke’s balloon pop was much better and given a proper ending; she was sweet and pretty throughout the show. Jennifer White played to her strengths with two mature and sensual performances – a very ‘Crazy Horse’ cat routine in the first half, and an emotive modern dance duet with Rachel Muldoon in the second half. Sophie Zucchini’s ‘Looking for Trouble’ solo was less memorable, except for a well executed, agile stocking strip. As she is Polly’s understudy, I hope she makes more of an impact in the lead role. An especially strong new edition is Caroline Amer, who most of us will know as Peggy de Lune. She gave a polished, humorous and engaging solo performance with a strong vocal and a fun pastie finale. Rachel Muldoon, now elevated to ‘Head Girly’, struts and smoulders through ‘Peek-a-Boo’ (love that Siouxsie track) and ‘S&M’, and titillates centre stage in the enduringly popular ‘Let’s Get Physical’. I’m still not sure why this is such a popular number – perhaps it’s just the combination of the absurdly cheesy routine and absurdly perfect physiques!
Although the girls were all clearly very good dancers, I thought some of the group numbers were a little lazy in places; it would have been nice if things were just that little bit punchier with tighter synchronisation. As their collective name suggests, I still felt that I was watching ‘girlys’ in action, rather than sensual women, and I can’t say I found their antics ‘arousing’ (although I can’t speak for members of the public who are less used to this sort of thing), but I found myself nitpicking much less and laughing along much more on this occasion.
(Note: I really missed Kitty Bang Bang’s stage presence and charisma. I was sad when she left the production before the run this year; I felt her absence.)
New cast member Coco DuBois acted as hostess for the evening. I thought she did an excellent job, striking just the right note with witty, well timed jokes, some audience participation that stopped just before it got tired, and a solid, polished and likeable persona. I really think she deserved a more prominent and equal billing alongside Rachel Muldoon; she contributed just as much, and stood out from the chorus in this role. Her participation in musical numbers was equally strong – the new cooking skit, ‘Coco’s Kitchen’, was a particularly successful and memorable new number. The image of Coco crotch flossing with a string of sausages still makes me smile a week later. Delightfully silly.
And so to Miss Polly Rae – the star of the show, and I want to emphasise that ‘star’, as I shall elaborate.
Despite enjoying the show much more this time around (and how relieved I was by the new and improved performances), something really niggled me throughout.
I have to acknowledge – and am happy to do so – that the addition of Coco and Peggy and the elevation of Rachel adds to the show, improving its structure and overall standard. Because they performed so well, it makes it more difficult for me to clearly articulate and even wholly justify this ‘niggle’.
Polly makes a number of appearances throughout the show, but the addition and elevation of the other three has cut into a lot of her quality stage time and I would question some of the redistribution. Rachel takes the lead instead of Polly in the ‘Peekaboo/S&M’ nuns routine, which now builds up to Polly’s entrance for ‘It’s a Sin’. Coco now performs ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’, which Polly used to perform in the guise of a school mistress (in a very ‘cheeky’ cut-out skirt) wielding a ruler, and although Coco performs it well, the intended scenario doesn’t come across as clearly.
“This show has a charming, engaging, very pretty, very able and naturally funny star. Intentionally or unintentionally she seems a little underused and perhaps underappreciated.”
Polly’s ‘classic’ burlesque fan dance closes the first half, which is a special solo moment for Polly to shine. But half way through the stage becomes far too busy as other girls join her on stage and it distracts from her own graceful performance. I accept that the decision to bring on the other girls with fans may have been designed to fill the larger West End stage and create a bigger number, but it worked just as well before at the Garrick when we just had Polly to enjoy.
Her monologue, ‘It’s Not About the Tits’ (a number that some reviewers singled out as a particularly successful moment in previous versions where Polly engaged the audience with her charm and humour), is now a duet, with Coco providing the voice of the inquisitive window cleaner. I felt that it had lost the ‘personal touch’; it felt less intimate and could have been the ideal moment early on in the show for Polly to establish some dialogue and rapport with the audience. As she doesn’t directly host proceedings any more, I think it’s important that she is given the chance to do this.
Finally, in ‘Bad’, Polly is given the stage and I think it is one of the strongest numbers in the show, proving that Polly is more than capable of commanding the stage and attention of the audience. The arrangement of the famous Michael Jackson track works really well and Polly is every inch the purring, naughty seductress with a sugary voice to match. I wanted more and I think Polly deserved more of this solo stage time. I was interested to hear my thoughts echoed in the comments of other people I spoke to. We all wanted more of Polly, alone and in her element. She appeared in only six of approximately twenty segments.
I also missed Polly’s closing striptease from last year – another chance for a cheeky, ‘classic’ burlesque solo as a final flourish before the curtain falls (and for some proper striptease, which the show still lacks.) Instead, the finale was a reworking of the popular Geisha/Umbrella scene. (Costume porn note: Polly’s green robe and shoes in this number were exquisite.) It was a pretty number and I liked the musical arrangement, but I didn’t think it was a strong enough finale.
So what to make of this… Various people, some close to the production and others merely speculating, have shared their personal thoughts with me. Is it a deliberate attempt to make Polly less prominent and central, either due to a lack of faith or confidence in her or to make it easier for an understudy to take her place if other commitments arise, such as her week-long run at the Hippodrome this week for Between the Sheets? Is it simply the result of bringing in new cast members and redistributing the available stage time? Someone even remarked in conversation with me that she seemed more like a guest headliner at times, which really frustrated me. Bolder, more obvious personas and voices add to the show, it can’t be denied, but they should always be a supporting act.
One occasion where Polly and the girls really worked well together was the ‘Marie Antoinette’ medley, which has been refined and re-worked since last year. Polly is central and confident, playing the silly and superficial queen to great comic effect and supported by equally silly and frilly hurly burly maids. It shows that the right dynamic and balance can be struck.
Polly is the star and founder of this show, this enduring Hurly Burly brand. I was watching Polly’s charming and creative Hurly Burly shows before William Baker and Nimax came along, and though no one can doubt what their support and input has achieved, Polly’s address in the program, describing her journey, reminds us what is at the heart of this – not just on glossy paper but in reality. Her years of hard work. Her ideas. Her brand.
This show has a charming, engaging, very pretty, very able and naturally funny star. Intentionally or unintentionally she seems a little underused and perhaps underappreciated. I hope this is rectified.
Some might see it as a failing in her that the newcomers make a ‘louder noise’, but she is simply a different sort of performer with a different gift of expression and has repeatedly proved that she can hold the stage alone. I look forward to seeing her in a more intimate setting at the Hippodrome this week.
If you were undecided about previous versions of this show, and if you can accept that this is a ‘burlesque inspired’, contemporary revue, I think it’s worth giving The Hurly Burly Show a second chance and making the trip to see the new run. For some it will still simply come down to a matter of taste, but if you enjoy sexified pop music, bawdy jokes, glitzy costumes and perfect posteriors, you’re going to have a good time!
The Hurly Burly Show: Naughty but Nice! runs until September 22nd, 2012.
Reviewed by Holli-Mae Johnson.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.