The Edinburgh Fringe 2012 is nearly over, and this is my last dispatch. In some ways it’s flown by, at times it seemed it would never end. For cabaret, it’s been another high-watermark year, with its dedicated section of the Fringe programme mushrooming in size on its second outing, performers from the London scene at the top of their game, great international discoveries and attention from non-scene audiences and observers reaching a new high.
There’s been impressive progress at all levels. At the grass roots, the Free Fringe has come into its own as a relatively egalitarian model offering economic benefits to both performers and audiences in ways that feel in tune with cabaret’s collaborative, permeable sensibility. Established performers from Bourgeois & Maurice to Frisky & Mannish, from Lady Carol to Up & Over It, have shown themselves willing to branch out and take risks as well as up their games in terms of technique. And a performer who made her name as a cabaret artist, Camille O’Sullivan, has just presented a bold and moving version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, drawing on ideas of direct address crucial to cabaret, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival itself.
This was also the inaugural year for TO&ST, the Time Out & Soho Theatre Edinburgh Cabaret Award. Our aim was to bolster the fledgling Cabaret section of the official Fringe programme, celebrate excellence within the scene and champion its work to a broader audience, and I think we can tentatively call it a success. Myself and my fellow judges, Soho Theatre cabaret and comedy programmer Steve Lock and the Glasgow Cabaret Festival’s Frodo McDaniel, were looking for work that was both entertaining and provocative, from performers who were both virtuoso artists and expert collaborators with audiences, and was maybe even a bit inspirational.
We were spoiled for choice. From an extremely strong field, our shortlist included outstanding shows from the Creative Martyrs, Dusty Limits, EastEnd Cabaret, Piff the Magic Dragon and Tomás Ford, performing for the first time outside Australia. But we unanimously decided to award the prize to New York-based Lady Rizo, whose stellar voice, outrageous comedy, effortless charisma and joyful audience engagement marked her out. We look forward to welcoming her to a run at the Soho Theatre, and the feature pages of Time Out, before long. Until that taste of the Fringe reaches London, it’s au revoir, Edinburgh.
Frisky & Mannish: Extra-Curricular Activities
Frisky & Mannish: 27 Club
In ‘Punch’, a new two-hander written by Steven Bloomer and directed by Jessica Edwards (Underbelly Cowgate, to Aug 26, listed in Theatre), Matthew Jones plays the devil-may-care puppet psychopath Mr Punch reimagined as a provocatively tasteless contemporary stand-up. Alternating between Punch on-stage at an open-mic night and in an interview with a social worker (Kirsty Mann), the play uses a pleasingly simple structure to present a modern take on the archaic story, and opens up intriguing paths of inquiry about offensiveness, humour, freedom of speech and the uses of violence. Given the unavailability of ‘The Shining’-era Jack Nicholson, Jones makes a terrific lead: his Punch is sinister and deadpan, threatening and vulnerable, constantly tickled yet serious of mind. In between gags about paedophilia and beatings, he offers a strident critique of Jeremy Kyle-style moral sensationalism and, at one point, seems genuinely pained to hear that the social worker’s favourite stand-up is Michael Macintyre. ‘Will you come out of that having been challenged in any way?’ he snorts.
It’s an odd line to hear from the mouth of Jones, who also performs as Mannish, the keyboard-playing half of celebrated pop-pastiche duo Frisky and Mannish. In many ways, Frisky and Mannish could be seen as the Michael Macintyre of the cabaret world, delivering shrewdly crafted, expertly delivered and rapturously received observations about banal and inconsequential subject matter. ‘Frisky & Mannish: Extracurricular Activities’ (Assembly Hall, to Aug 26, listed in Comedy) is a great showcase for what Jones and his partner Laura Corcoran do: working their way through the minor absurdities of chart pop, his Mannish is catty and deft at the keyboard, her Frisky booming and brilliant on vocals, their impressive musicality effectively supported by strong lighting and effective video pieces. But their characters are little more than pegs for top-down gags targeting easy marks and delivered in the manner of sarcastic teachers. Singing one pop song in the style of another (Lily Allen does Kate Bush, Karen Carpenter goes grime) only gets you so far; and how revelatory is the suggestion that Kelly Clarkson’s lyrics are full of clichés? Only in a medley teasing out the stalky sensibility of beloved ballads is there a sense of using wit and musicality to explore what is actually under the shiny skin of pop music. Otherwise it has been hard to argue with the duo’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that ‘you may think we’re frivolous, superficial and just take the piss.’
‘Frisky & Mannish: 27 Club’ (Assembly George Square, to Aug 22, listed in Comedy) is a welcome sign, then, of an ambitious new direction: an experimental show constructed around the notional group of mythic rockers who died at 27 including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. To the duo’s credit, the project applies their talents to a richer facet of pop-music culture than the shows that brought them success, adopting a darker tone and delivering by far their most interesting work to date. Decked out in mourning chic, they chart an ambitious, often analytically shrewd and disarmingly self-reflexive course through subjects as varied as traumatic upbringings, the uses of narcotics and adopted personae, and the tortuous triangle of fame, neurosis and art. Plato, Huxley and Kurt Cobain’s suicide note are put to good use too. The overall argument could be sharpened and the cop-out ending suggests an understandable reluctance to alienate their existing fans. But if they have the courage of their convictions, there’s bold development to build on here in terms of music and character: with Frisky’s impressive imitations of Winehouse and Joplin and a perceptive take on Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’ from Mannish, these talented musicians show themselves willing to play it straight for the right reasons; similarly, moments tapping into her character’s vulnerability and his character’s nastiness show the potential to move beyond crowd-pleasing to something more progressive and insightful. To quote another character unafraid to make an audience feel uncomfortable, that’s the way to do it.
La Clique Royale – The Queen’s Selection: ★★★☆☆
It’s eight years since La Clique was born at the Edinburgh Fringe and two since Brett Haylock and much of its core cast branched off from Haylock’s co-creator David Bates to form the similar enterprise La Soirée. In this return to the Fringe for La Clique, things are the same in some ways, different in others. It’s still a high-impact, high-momentum fusion of cabaret, circus and variety blending laughs, skills and underground allure. But this is a raunchier incarnation, with shades of The Box in its increased emphasis on sexy acts and dark humour. Gerry Connolly’s Queen impression is a comic treat and Mark Winmill fuses boylesque and aerialism with great panache; there’s also a wicked Alpine turn from Agent Lynch, assured acrobatics from Mirko and Didj Wentorth and sonorous crooning from Mikelangelo. The show’s saucy tone grows samey, however, and it lacks a strong compere – the closest thing is magician Paul Zenon, whose leering patter leaves a bad taste. The Famous Spiegeltent, to Aug 26
The Horne Section – Live at the Grand!: ★★★☆☆
Witty, warm and pleasingly silly, Alex Horne and his five-piece band deliver consistently funny and accomplished material, combining versatile improvisation with nicely judged set-pieces and audience involvement. The tone ranges from self-consciously cheesy puns to a very clever collection of foodstuffs spelled out in musical notes (E-G-G, B-E-E-F and so on), all coddled in cheery banter. The night that I went, however, the Section were badly let down by their comedy guest acts. Frisky and Mannish were typically rousing but David O’Doherty, Felicity Ward and Des Bishop’s spots ranged from unchallenging to substandard. Pleasance Comedy, to Aug 22 (listed in Comedy)
Loretta Maine: Bi-Polar, ★★★★☆
Wasted, insecure and not quite as mad as she seems, Loretta Maine delivers musical character comedy of a high order, putting her ostensibly abject outsider status as a boozy, bipolar American rock chick to very funny and incisive use as an observer of British ways. Backed by a two-piece band dubbed Penis Envy, she yowls out rollicking numbers about binge drinking, coma-stricken one-night stands and fried chicken shops, hitting a smart balance between narcissistic debauchery and satire: a high note is her identification of the White Wine Witch (‘you know her – she’s got loads of opinions then she cries’); elsewhere, shrewd takes on beauty ideals and taboos around female sexuality lurk beneath the mad hair and smudged mascara. Just the Tonic, to Aug 26 (listed in Comedy)
Rubies in the Attic: ★★★★☆
An elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry, this show from the Ruby Dolls sees these four versatile performers delving into their own family histories to tell the stories of their remarkable forebears. Working against a ’40s-style backdrop of trunks, crates and bric-a-brac, their characters range from a liberated Home Counties gel to a veteran’s wife on the Veld, as well as Jewish and Italian immigrants. For all its formal variety, the shows maintains a consistent tone and sensibility, deftly balancing comedy, characterisation, historical context and moving testimony. Assembly Roxy, to Aug 27 (listed in Theatre)
Tumble Circus: This Is What We Do for a Living: ★★☆☆☆
This show from the circus duo – Tina Segner from Sweden, Ken Fall from Belfast – lays out the history of their 17-year collaboration through theatre as well as skills-based work but doesn’t satisfy on either front. Working from a script that is more incidental than dramatic, the performers struggle to convey much emotional range as actors; perhaps more disappointingly, their juggling, hula-hooping, aerial and acrobatic skills were less than polished, at least on the night I saw the show, with numerous slip-ups. In combination, these made it hard to appreciate the moments of impressive skill the show does contain. Underbelly, Bristo Square, to Aug 27 (listed in Theatre)
The shortlist for this year’s inaugural Time Out & Soho Theatre Edinburgh Cabaret Award – aka TO&ST – has been announced!
The nominated shows are: ‘Dusty Limits: Post-Mortem’; ‘EastEnd Cabaret: Notoriously Kinky’; ‘An Hour Long Sinister Wink’ by the Creative Martyrs; ‘Lady Rizo’; ‘Piff the Magic Dragon in… Jurassic Bark’; and ‘An Audience with Tomás Ford’.
The TO&ST judges are Soho Theatre comedy and cabaret programmer Steve Lock; Glasgow-based cabaret producer and performer Frodo McDaniel; and Time Out London cabaret editor Ben Walters. The winning show, selected from new work listed in the cabaret section of the Fringe programme, receives a two-week run at the Soho Theatre and a feature in Time Out London.
The winner will be announced on Thursday August 23. A Time Out Live showcase of TO&ST nominees takes place at noon tomorrow, Saturday August 18, at Assembly George Square.
Boom Boom Club, ★★★★☆
Five or six years ago, my predecessor as Time Out cabaret editor, Simone Baird, took me to see Dusty Limits for the first time. One of the songs he performed was ‘Coin-Operated Boy’, making the show my introduction to the music of Amanda Palmer as well. So call me sentimental but it was a bit special to see the pair of them duetting on that very number at the Boom Boom Club the other night. London’s trailblazing cabaret company have set up shop at the Fringe for an early-hours variety bill plus music, promenade performance and dancing. The line-up changes every night but was strong the night I went, with songs from Bourgeois and Maurice and absurd deadpan physical gags from Ben Target. Gypsy-rockabilly-jazz house band Tankus the Henge and ambient weirdoes Late Night Shop gee up the crowd. Underbelly Cowgate, to Aug 26
Love, Lust and Lager, ★★☆☆☆
This four-strong Aussie company – a guy and three girls, one of them on cello – have a nice line in harmonised arrangements but otherwise there’s not much to grab hold of here. The skeleton plot sees a banker, a waitress and a politician, each differently at a loss after the financial crash, take a trip to the outback together. Silvers of story separate the musical numbers – covers ranging from Bizet to Men at Work – but the characters are barely discernible, the drama inert, the dialogue banal and the song choices uninspiring. Littler sign either of anything named in the title. SpaceCabaret@54, to Aug 25
The Tom Collins Free Variety Hour, ★★★★☆
Terrific skills-based character comic Abi Collins and sword-swallowing comedian Tom Balmont team up in the back room of a pub for this charmingly lo-fi spirit-of-the-fringe show. The night I went there was a casual, supportive vibe for the combination of songs, circus skills, comedy and character work on show, as well as Collins’s dabbling in performing as herself. Things got a little too casual when one of the punters she brought on stage to help with a regular acrobatic number proved too pissed to support her weight and she took a nasty tumble onto her forearm. Suffering in the name of cabaret – here’s to a speedy recovery…The Laughing Horse @ The White Horse, to Aug 26
The Wonderful World of Wilfredo, ★★★★☆
With the look of a tramp, the libido of a goat and the voice of a wrong angel, Wilfredo is one of the most irresistibly funny musical-comedy characters on the scene today. Possessed of a bulletproof ego, rancid personal hygiene and a grotesque collection of facial and verbal tics, there’s still something charming about this Spanish balladeer and his rich, expressive repertoire of songs, mostly about his effect on the fairer sex. Matt Roper inhabits his creation deeply, undercutting his hauteur and self-delusion with beams of charm and dollops of soul. As the man himself might say, you can’t help yourself. Just the Tonic at the Tron, to Aug 26 (listed in Comedy)
World War Wonderful!, ★★★★☆
To look at the publicity, you’d think the Wonderful Sisters were yet another close-harmony boogie-woogie tribute act, but they turn out to be one part Andrews Sisters to two parts ‘Starship Troopers’. What starts out as a risqué VSO pastiche takes a turn for the spikily satirical, with deviously delicious ditties about STIs, PTSD and amputees, then an even darker turn as a fully-formed plot kicks in. The show overreaches itself as drama – this Aussie trio’s plotting, dialogue and acting aren’t as spot-on as their accents, singing and sick sense of humour – but the ambition is impressive and the tone zeroes in, often hilariously, on a queasy sweet spot where dimples and cluster bombs collide. SpaceCabaret@54, to Aug 25
Boy in a Dress: ★★★★★
Transdrogynous polymath succès de scandale La JohnJoseph scores a hit with this high-heeled, low-living clusterfuck of sex, class, religion, gender, identity and ideology. It’s an elegant and propulsive piece distilling three earlier memoir shows about the threat and thrills of cross-gender glamour, a conspicuously shabby Liverpool upbringing and an ill-fated but rather fabulous sojourn in New York. Imperiously gorgeous and unapologetically hyperarticulate, La JohnJoseph uses the Penny Arcade mode of very direct address, combining anecdote, cultural analysis, theatre and song, and is aided by imaginative wardrobe work (both literal and figurative), supporting performer Erin Hutching and director Sarah Chew. She doesn’t wait for dawdlers, cantering like a thoroughbred from bad stepfathers to Catholicism-as-psychedelia, dislocated subjectivity to thieving tranny cockroaches. But keep up with this incisive, witty, moving and glam piece of work and it might just help you get ahead of the game. The Stand Comedy Club III & IV, to Aug 26 (listed as Theatre)
Doug Segal: How to Read Minds and Influence People: ★★☆☆☆
You have to take everything a mindreader says with a pinch of salt but I think I believed Doug Segal when he said he was having an off-night. He promised a night of amazing feats that, he insisted, were down to nothing more spooky than statistics, body language, subliminal influencing and cheating. And he delivered a number of impressive coups, guessing words, numbers and images without obvious ways of doing so. But his manner throughout was weirdly charmless and passive-aggressive, conspicuously stressing negative aspects of the performance. I found myself wondering if the whole thing was constructed to engineer the standing ovation he received at the end… Gilded Balloon Teviot, to Aug 27
Mr B’s Chap-Hop Hooray!: ★★☆☆☆
Mr B is very good at chap-hop, his patented tongue-in-cheek banjolele fusion of hip-hop and tweedy poshness. Last year, despite his fine musical and tongue-twisting skills, I felt the joke wore thin over a whole hour; this year, that problem is exacerbated by the weakness of Mr B’s new material. The strongest numbers are old (‘All Hail the Chap’, ‘Kissing in Porn’), fresh elements, such as a keyboard medley and the introduction of a butler character, though welcome in theory, fall flat in practice, and the show as a whole is over-reliant on singalongs and rejigged 90s floorfillers. Nice Bullingdon Club number, though. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 26
Scales of the Unexpected: ★★★☆☆
The musical trio return with a new set of pop pastiche and low-octane social comedy. The three performers’ vocals are impressive, their mildly dysfunctional dynamic nicely polished and their shots at easy targets like Gary Barlow and Lady Gaga hit home. The crowd I saw it with enjoyed the show but overall I found it tended to the bland and conservative. Gilded Balloon at Third Door, to Aug 26
An Audience with Tomás Ford: ★★★★★
Life is crap. Society is crumbling. You aren’t good enough. But it doesn’t have to be like that. At its best, cabaret performance can approach a kind of congregational ecstasy, an ego-shrinking togetherness in art that provides not just a holiday from life but a model for living. And it can be done in the back room of a grungy pub by a bloke in a dressing gown. Tomás Ford is what you’re looking for. Using a hefty mixing console, three video screens, a growling voice, snake hips and a shedload of chutzpah, this Aussie performer making his international debut crafts a musical and emotional experience of raucous, riveting intensity. It’s a little as if Sweeney Todd threw an electro-punk party in the sex dungeon of the TARDIS en route to nirvana. Sure, it seems freaky, but only if you don’t join in – the title invites you to be with Ford, not in front of or below him – and if you do, you might end up bearing him on your shoulders through the pub onto the street with joy in your heart. Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde, to Aug 26
Dorothy Squires: Mrs Roger Moore: ★★★★☆
In the Welsh diva Dorothy Squires – singer of ‘The Gypsy’, ‘Say It with Flowers’ and ‘My Way’, wife of the 007 actor pre-007, queen of comebacks, lawsuits and white rabbit-fur – Al Pillay has found an ideal vehicle. Unashamedly de trop in whiteface, pink chiffon and ostrich feathers, and backed by a chorus of four male singer-actor-dancers, the high-octane actor and musician (‘Eat the Rich’, ‘Pistol in My Pocket’) portrays Squires’s journey from the valleys to the Palladium, from Hollywood to bust, as a compelling combination of ambition, defiance, self-defence, self-delusion and spitting fury. The last is especially convincing (‘I love a fight!’) and Pillay’s voice is credibly room-filling. Weirdly, the performer with a notable resemblance to Moore doesn’t play him; it’s not clear why the one who does does. Gilded Balloon Teviot, to Aug 27
Knickerbocker Glory!: ★★★☆☆
The Sundaes are more or less female drag queens of the old school – three larger women with lavish Mr Whippee wigs (complete with wafers) and outré costumes who belt out crowd-pleasing pop favourites, from Lulu to Bond themes, disco to diva ballads, in big voices. There’s an established comic dynamic between the trio – one is dumb, one flirty, one bossy – and they deliver the goods well enough but it quickly melts away. Space Cabaret @ 54, to Aug 25
Massive Horse: ★★★★☆
Following a couple of notable YouTube videos and arena tours supporting bands, this weird, fun, weirdly funny duo presents a full-length electro-metal comedy set with a hefty dose of post-Vic-and-Bob oddball laughs. The whole thing is backed by a video track that allows for illustration of songs about robot girlfriends and starving dogs, cutaways to impending alien invaders and moments of video-interactive lunacy such as a ‘Street Fighter 2’-style battle and three-way conversation between the guys and one of their souls. It’s odd and random and doesn’t all work but it’s ambitious, inventive and crazy funny. Mood Nightclub, to Aug 25 (in Comedy section)
Twonkeys Kingdom [sic]: ★★★★☆
Certainly the most bizarro piece I’ve seen so far this Fringe, this is the third of Paul Vickers’s shows exploring the fantasy world of Twonkey, now installed as tyrannical (female) king of a land beyond easy description. Vickers is the outsider artist of comedy: ruddy-faced, bearded and curly-haired in t-shirt and jeans, on a stage adorned with a little yellow windmill, ship’s wheel and piles of dolls and puppets, he tells weird stories and sings rocky songs about deposed alpine centaurs, Lon Chaney and the offspring of Humpty Dumpty. It’s like peeking into an adult playroom of remarkable but decidedly sideways imagination. Basically, if you like the sound of panicked crocodile piss, crab-hunting at Voodoo Bridge and ‘another victory in the war against eggs’, this is the show for you. Alternative Fringe @ The Hive, to Aug 26
The Curious Couple from Coney: ★★★★☆
Donny Vomit and Heather Holliday he with the polished patter and waxed moustache, she with the cinched silhouette and aesophagus of steel present a superior slice of sideshow befitting these Coney Island veterans. As well as impressive takes on geek classics such as an electrified blockhead turn and multiple sword-swallowing, the show offers some intriguing insights into carny heritage and at least two truly hair-raising, eye-watering coups. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 26
Sophie Walsh-Harrington’s ‘Damsel in Shining Armour’ was one of the 2011 Fringe’s great cabaret discoveries, a triumphant and award-winning fusion of storytelling and self-mythologisation, glitter confetti and the Celine Dion songbook. Walsh-Harrington’s follow-up, ‘Hot’, sees her tilting into narcissistic overdrive with a show about the cabaret equivalent of second-album syndrome: how to follow such a hit? Derivative high concepts, experimental theatre, even retirement are all turned over as options in a peculiar show that is never less than compelling but also strangely hollow: Walsh-Harrington is a charismatic and a consummate performer with superb control of the room and fearless audience engagement skills; yet ‘Hot’ is so flagrantly self-absorbed, self-conscious and self-critiquing (‘These ideas they’re all so self-indulgent. Me, me, me!’) that it seems almost to consume itself and vanish in a glitterball-lit puff of dry ice, leaving us blinking and none the wiser. C nova, to Aug 27
Amy Abler is an unmistakably talented keyboard diva, boasting with some justification ‘the fastest fingers of the Fringe’. Classically trained and a veteran of the cruise-ship and touring circuit, she’s an assured and engaging performer with the capacity to wow: a breakneck extended riff on both classical and pop themes has the exhilarating feel of twiddling a radio dial to find everything in sync. More of that would have been sensational: instead there’s an over-generous dose of middle-of-the-road material such as ABBA and cowboy-television medleys. Sweet, to Aug 17
Once Upon a Time (in Space): ★★★★☆
Less cabaret than live concept album, this show from seven-piece steampunk storytelling space-pirate outfit the Mechanisms plays like an extended, absorbing and convincing hour-long pitch for a big-budget SF-fantasy cable TV series. Think ‘Battlestar Galactica’ meets ‘Shrek’. Most every fairytale character you can think of is cybernetically jazzed up and roped into the tale of Old King Cole, his daughters Rose Red (the warrior) and Snow White (the diplomat) and the decades-long civil war engulfing their world. Great loves and great battles zip by in spectacular set-pieces set to rousing rounds and shanties and encrusted with nice throwaway details (Scheherezade is a ‘silver-tongued propaganda minister’). Some band members are better musicians than actors and the sound isn¹t always crystal clear but it’s a tremendous yarn. Whynot?, to Aug 25
Fag Ends and Families…!: ★★★★☆
Simon Egerton’s charming, moving and wry piece of cabaret theatre offers a genuinely distinctive take on a peculiar and peculiarly English life. Mixing impressive original songs and quirky scripted recollections, he depicts a family of ordinary oddities and sexual secrets with mordant humour and vivid detail, from an awful first cigarette to the slapdash make-up on his mother’s corpse (‘in life, she wouldn’t have been caught dead looking like that’). As well as Egerton’s rich voice and potent presence, it’s the piquant details that linger: his unaccountable habit, as a straight working-class child, of presenting as Œposh with a tendency to camp¹; a heart-wrenching sung monologue of bereavement and liberation delivered as Turkish waves lap in the background. Zoo Southside, to Aug 26
An Hour Long Sinister Wink: ★★★★☆
Drawing on a lineage of hapless suited schlubs that includes Laurel and Hardy and Vladimir and Estragon, the Creative Martyrs are among the most compelling cabaret performers at the Fringe. Wearing bowler hats, dark suits, white pancake make-up and pantomime airs of superiority, rage, impotence and despair all with accompanying winks their presence is riveting, their demand for collaboration irresistible. Their songs, backed by cello, ukulele and ‘a little lowdown, dirty mouth trumpet’, are satire of the unvarnished variety: numbers about surveillance, warmongering and censorship are elegant in delivery but blunt in their assertions. Social critique is served neat, or on the rocks of obviously absurd irony, rather than blended with the smoother comic mixers of character or story. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 25
The Jewbadour: ★★★★☆
Daniel Cainer’s show drawing on his rediscovered Jewish heritage which I saw on Shabbas, naughty has a love of shaggy-dog storytelling, a bittersweet tang and a make-do-and-mend vibe in tune with the subjects of its songs: empty-pocketed immigrants, semi-rebellious daughters, coked-up rabbis and suburban philanderers. If Cainer’s patter is rambling at times, his lyrics paint a lovingly detailed portrait of a life, and a people, ‘full of paradox’. Mood Nightclub, to Aug 25
Breathless: A Damatic Cantata: ★★☆☆☆
Behsat Ahmet’s cabaret cantata seems to follow a performer who is dumped shortly before a performance I say ‘seems’ because ‘Breathless’ doesn’t offer audiences many in-roads to Ahmet’s character’s travails, vexing for him though they seem to be. Mixing Portishead, REM, Weill and Shakespearean verse with video, dance and direct address, Ahmet offering shades of Lugosi with his aquiline features, capacious black cape and leather straps delivers a verbose, self-involved piece with plenty of formal ambition but little to amuse or empathise with. SpaceCabaret @ 54, to Aug 25
Mickey and Judy: ★★★☆☆
Dressing up dolls, making chorus lines of toy soldiers, ecstatically watching himself cry in the bathroom mirror… No prizes for guessing Michael Hughes grew up to pursue a career in musical theatre. This cabaret-theatre piece uses show tunes, mostly by Judy Garland, to punctuate the tale of Hughes’s problematised childhood carted off to psychiatrists by concerned parents, tormented at high school and eventual move from Toronto to NYC. Hughes is a sympathetic performer with a good musical-theatre voice but there’s nothing distinctively remarkable about his story, his set list or his delivery. Broadway babies won’t be disappointed, though. SpaceCabaret @ 54, to Aug 25
Paul Dabek: Nothing Up My Sleeve:★★★★☆
Slick as a pickpocket, Paul Dabek proves himself a superb showman in this conjuring showcase in the Free Fringe. On a night when plenty of things beyond his control went wrong, he maintained smooth, funny patter and rattled out opportunistic ad-libs aplenty, keeping a full house on side like a seasoned working-men’s-club comic. The magic itself was less impressive: last trick aside, they were familiar stuff, and it’s telling that Dabek’s finale isn’t conjuring at all but shadow puppetry. Still, for grace under fire the show I saw was hard to top. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 25
Cabaret Whore – Her Finest Hour ★★★★☆
Sarah-Louise Young brings her four-year ‘Cabaret Whore’ project to a close (at for now) with this greatest-hits collection, boasting three songs apiece from three of her long-running characters: trailer-trash country gal Sammy Mavis, Jr, well-lubricated diva of a certain age Bernie St Claire and histrionic Piaf manqué La Poule Plombée. Though the material is familiar, the characters have developed somewhat – Bernie is now soused throughout and La Poule’s vestigial vulnerabilities have been allowed to peep through. Even so, with such limited stage time allotted to each, Young’s creations remain at the level of caricature. (I’m excited about a couple of less diffuse future projects she’s working on.) Nevertheless, Young has been instrumental to cabaret’s rising fortunes at the Fringe and remains an undisputed past master of polished musical storytelling in comedy character. Underbelly, Bristo Square, to Aug 12
Keira Daley: LadyNerd ★★☆☆☆
This piece dedicated to smart women would make a charming presentation for schools but fails to take off as a Fringe cabaret show. Self-identified lady nerd Daley uses songs – mostly rewritten standards – and spoken word to praise a range of high-achieving female intellectuals and entrepreneurs, from Marie Curie to Hedy Lamarr. It’s an admirable ambition delivered with some wit and musical panache: Daley has a strong voice and a fine accompanist. But rather than cultivating a collaborative atmosphere, she recites her scripted paeans with forced enthusiasm and, frustratingly for a show predicated on the value of intellectual rigour, reneges on her own definitions. Initially we’re told a lady nerd is someone who privileges the life of the mind over social matters, but it becomes clear that any woman who has done well by using her head is up for grabs. True to its nerdy roots, the show is wordy, impassioned and sincere but struggles to connect with a room. Assembly George Square, to Aug 27
Sex, Drugs and Vaudeville ★★★☆☆
With his deathly pallor, songs about arson and dismemberment and wardrobe like Tim Burton’s hand-me-downs, Joe Black cuts a deliberately cartoon-villainish figure. Having only seen him do solo spots before, I was apprehensive about a full-length show: while he’s impressive on keyboard and accordion, I don’t find his voice very tuneful (Tom Waits-worthy growling notwithstanding) and find a little histrionic-murder-ballad eye-rolling goes a long way. I wasn’t sure if the strip-club venue would help, either. While those reservations remain, I found much of ‘Sex, Drugs and Vaudeville’ highly impressive: Black worked a small audience with masterful ease, cultivating a relaxed and humorous campfire vibe and many of the songs were emotionally potent: a minor-key take on ‘You Are My Sunshine’ was a strong idea lacking strong delivery but a quietly sincere take on Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ was simply beautiful. As for the unexpectedly energetic finale… Let’s just say I’ve never seen anyone combine a neon sweatband with artfully sunken eyes with such aplomb. Sapphire Rooms, to Aug 26
The fruits of dirty demi-mondeuse Ophelia Bitz’s 18 months spent ‘selflessly mining the coalface of smut’, this progressive porn salon is a gloriously squelchy one-off. Drawing on filth from the dawn of cinema to the pre-VHS era, Bitz lays out a lineage of erotica distinguished by elements at odds with the cold, plastic vibe of today’s commercial porn – things like humour, pleasure, body fat and pubes. There are witty song choices to accompany the clips (three is the magic number indeed), a couple of strong original songs (written by Sarah-Louise Young and Michael Roulston), a cunniling-off and a rousing singalong ahead of the final whistle. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 25
Bourgeois & Maurice: Sugartits: ★★★★☆
From their entry bearing marshmallows and the faux niavete of opening song ‘Welcome to the World’, it’s clear that Bourgeois & Maurice are making the effort to play friendly this year, even if she looks like a Gestapo tart and he looks like Pee-Wee Herman mated with a blackcurrant pastille (in a good way). But smiling doesn’t mean blunting the teeth: as well as maintaining their barbed rapport, the duo have an impressive crop of fresh tunes on fresh subjects, many with hooks as catchy as chlamydia. Numbers like ‘Privacy’s for Paedos’, ‘Goodbye, Europe’ (a morning-after-the-night-before Kabarett pastiche) and ‘Facebook Makes Me Feel Shit’ ensure ‘Sugartits’ is the most timely as well as one of the funniest cabaret shows at the Fringe. The songs aren’t technically perfect – words are sometimes forced into odd shapes by the scansion, Maurice’s voice can sound thin and there’s often a sense of diminishing returns as verses progress – but it’s hard to think of any other act delivering such clever, funny and sharp material about subjects as potentially dry as tax, global warming and one-size-fits-all retail-based town planning. And ‘We Want Love’ is haunting, aching proof of the heart above the bile. Underbelly Cowgate, to Aug 26
Lady Carol Must Die: ★★★★☆
…or rather Lady Carol’s dad must die. The ethereal chanteuse’s latest set is structured around her severely stained relationship with her father: it begins with an anecdote about her early-childhood attempt to poison him and things barely improve from there. It’s a brave and moving approach: along with her dry wit and potent voice, which can soar from a croak to a yodel with eerie and tremulous beauty, a certain vulnerability has always been part of Lady Carol’s persona. Here she proves remarkably open about her own as well as her father’s shortcomings and if the show never quite articulates the essence of the falling out at its core, it’s sincerity is highly affecting. The songs, including Mama Cass, Elton John and Nick Cave numbers, are great. Assembly Rooms, to Aug 26
Rob James: Magicana: ★★★☆☆
‘Magicana’ is an impressive showcase of conjuring from Rob James, ranging from sleight of hand and mind reading to bravura pickpocketing and a beautiful automaton piece. But James’s delivery doesn’t match his technique: his somewhat stiff manner never gets in the way of the tricks but it leaves the show struggling to take flight as more than an exhibition of technical skill. That said, a couple of nifty ad libs suggest that a more relaxed, engaging style might yet be on the cards. TheSpace @ Surgeons Hall, to Aug 25
I wasn’t able to catch all of ‘Hairy Pretty Things’ (Fingers Piano Bar, to Aug 25) and while I didn’t fall about laughing at the gags that I did see, it’s worth popping in for David Somerset Barnes’s beautiful voice.
BBC Cabaret in association with TO&ST
There aren’t many things more satisfying than watching a stereotypically dour middle-aged Scottish man who’s been scowling his way through a queer-as-fuck drag act break into an involuntary smile.
There was plenty of that during Jonny Woo’s set at the cabaret showcase held on Tuesday night at the BBC’s pop-up Edinburgh Fringe hub at Potterow in association with TO&ST (the Time Out and Soho Theatre Edinburgh Award). A good few faces remained straight too but that’s fine: the hugely oversubscribed event was a wonderful showcase for the freaky spirit of cabaret and although the overall response was terrific, if it hadn’t left some curious newbies bemused or even alienated, it wouldn’t have been doing its job.
Jonny Woo gave his Mary Portas, thrust his Wonder Woman costume-clad crotch in the front row’s faces and sang ecstatically of ‘going out dressed as a girl’, backed by four bewigged volunteers. Bourgeois & Maurice whipped up a paean to Potters Bar (the town, not the train wreck) with a punter’s help and warned ‘Don’t Google Me, Mother’. Up & Over It brought he house down with a coked-up, slap-happy hand-dancing routine. And Piff the Magic Dragon was… Well, the only word is heroic.
Piff walked into a heffalump trap by selecting as a volunteer a girl who, unbeknownst to him, had proved herself to be inarguably, albeit tunefully, the drunkest person in a pretty drunk room. He realised his mistake quickly but, alas, too late and was obliged to try a card trick in the face of the volunteer’s attempts to grope him, declaration that she didn’t trust him (‘That’s probably because I’m a magician,’ he noted) and even hurling a can of dog food at him. With superb skill and barely disguised contempt, Piff managed to wrangle her behaviour, make comic gold of her disruption (‘Yep, that card there. The one losing the will to live’) and still complete the trick with aplomb. It was a perfect illustration of the fact that good cabaret isn’t about everything going to plan but about using the unexpected to create unique moments of shared pleasure. Shame the girl who made it all possible won’t remember a thing. The show also illustrated a number of the ideas that came up in the Cabaret Uncovered panel earlier that day, also at the BBC site. More to come on that later…
Chaz Royal’s Sexy Circus Sideshow: ★★★☆☆
Canadian carnie duo Monsters of Schlock – aka the Great Orbax and Sweet Pepper Klopek – host this raucous rotating line-up of sideshow, burlesque and music, produced by London Burlesque Week supremo Chaz Royal. Orbax is a fun, likeably teasing host and the pair’s antics – a spoon hammered into Orbax’s face, cards stapled to Sweet Pepper’s body parts – are on point, as is the cheesecake burlesque (Sarina del Fuego got frisky with a python, Betty D’Light slick with Champagne). A fine show of its kind but it’s all on the surface; personally, I like a bit more substance with my sensation. Assembly George Square, to Aug 26
Das Vegas Night: Frank Sanazi: ★★★★☆
Appreciation of Frank Sanazi is a matter of (bad) taste. The basic joke is brilliant: Hitler and Sinatra offer two facets of the same kind of wanna-be-in-my-gang swagger laced with menace so why not meld them? And the best songs – ‘That’s Reich’ to the tune of ‘That’s Life’, for instance – are witty mash-ups of crooning and demagoguery. Others are over-stretched excuses for strings of puns (and I write as a fan of puns), and some of the gags are eye-rollers. Still, I enjoyed ‘Das Vegas’ a lot. It features a couple of extra pals: ‘Nancy Sanazi’ does a rather one-note ‘Jackboots Are Made for Walking’ but I was weirdly captivated by ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ as delivered by Anne Frank (!), a rendition that worked not only as a sick joke but as a perversely poignant echo of the adolescent sexuality Frank expressed in her diary. The line-up includes a couple of guest spots; the night I went, I saw the extraordinary Betty Grumble, a grotesque burlesque clown act somewhere between Abi Collins and Rose Wood. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 11
It’s Not Easy Being Yellow: Ria Lina: ★★★☆☆
Ria Lina’s mom is Filipino, her dad is German and she grew up all over the place, ethnically mixed and geographically peripatetic. This show charts through comedy and original songs her attempts to answer the frequently asked (or at least inferred) questions ‘why do you look like that?’ and ‘why do you sound like that?’ It’s a fertile premise yielding limited results. Lina quotes past reviews critical of her use both of the ukulele and of stereotypes. On the former, I disagree: the songs are the strongest element of the set, demonstrating deft songwriting and daring wit around aspects of family ties and personal identity. On the latter, I think they have a point: too many unfunny gags rest on lazy suppositions about national characteristics. Towards the end, Lina offers a rewritten version of an earlier song, replacing sweeping generalisations with the quotidian realities of her parents’ relationship (they met through work in the US). It’s instantly more engaging, endearing and eye-opening than a hundred tired lines about Germans lusting for power. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 26
Jacques Brel: In Song and Dance: ★★☆☆☆
Singer Christine Bovill and dancer Agathe Girard present their take on the Brel songbook, accompanied by Dmytro Morykit on piano and Lizy Stirrat on accordion, in a technically accomplished set that left me cold. Bovill, singing in French, has a bold, clear voice with a distinctive vibrato and Girard’s movement is fluid and controlled. But there’s no sense of felt passion here, or collaboration with the audience, just technique and gesture. Bovill often seems to be relating tales rather than expressing emotion, while Girard’s interpretations of the songs’ characters are obviously figurative: a lover moons, a sailor sneers, an old woman looks serene. Brel demands the whiff of bodily fluids, not the dressing-up box! Institut français d’Ecosse to Aug 11; Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall, Aug 19
Piff the Magic Dragon in… Jurassic Bark: ★★★★☆
The man in the dragon suit is back, along with his Chihuahua, Mr Piffles, with a hugely entertaining hour of grumpy magic. Piff’s search for a princess provides the frame for a range of terrific tricks, from card work to cannons, and consistently funny comic business. The cute-to-curmudgeonly ratio is spot-on: on the one hand, no one could resist an adorable doggy placed in a straitjacket or blindfolded with ‘the electrical tape of dreams’ (no, not really); on the other, Piff’s weary demeanour is neat schtick that also provides a perfect get-out if things go wrong. My main reservation is that much of the most impressive close-up magic doesn’t travel to the back of the room, where I was sitting. Get up front and you’ll have a blast.
Ali McGregor’s Alchemy: ★★★☆☆
In her new show, which sets disposable pop songs to jazz, lounge and Latin rhythms, Australian comic chanteuse Ali McGregor talks a lot about her uni days in the late ’90s – which is when Mike Flowers was doing the same shtick. The gimmick doesn’t stretch far: the Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘Johnny Come Home’ makes a moving tango and ‘Barbie Girl’ to the tune of ‘Making Whoopee’ is a nice gag but many of the songs here are just lyrically banal (‘La Isla Bonita’, ‘Push It’) while others are already clichéd as retrofitted vintage (‘Tainted Love’, ‘Oops! I Did It Again’). Still, McGregor’s voice is undeniably lovely, especially in a yearning register, her manner endearing and her comic asides spot on. Assembly George Square, to Aug 26 (listed under Music)
Edward Reid: Living the Dream One Song at a Time: ★★☆☆☆
Edward Reid made a bit of a splash last year with an appearance on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ in which he put nursery rhyme lyrics to pop tunes. Some Frisky & Mannish fans cried foul – they’d done the same, after all, but then others had done similarly before them. In any case, Reid got some screentime and now he’s got his own Fringe show, a how-did-I-get-here? story of limited interest. He seems like a nice guy but there are few surprises in the biographical trajectory here and the musical choices tend towards clap-along fluff and cliché, from TV-theme-tune and musical-theatre medleys to ‘Proud Mary’ sung for no discernible reason. (Like Ali McGregor, he does a jazzy dancefloor cover: Haddaway’s ‘What is Love?’) Reid is at his most convincing singing aspirational Disney ballads and in a number about early attempts to suppress his sexuality: ‘think more of John Wayne and less of Garbo’. Assembly George Square, to Aug 15
Jonny Woo: Wonder Woo-Man: ★★★★☆
London’s tranny superstar par excellence follows ‘International Woman of Mr E’, his 2008 Fringe show about his New York spell of drag ’n’ drugs, with this stonking story-of-my-life set. We move from Medway Towns youth and nine-to-five purgatory to alt-drag rebirth and transatlantic success, the latter not always of the predictable kind (‘you don’t expect to be thrown the Mary-Portas-doppelganger curveball…’). Woo’s got it all: a succession of awesome looks from ‘slag casual’ to tranny Olympian; a tongue-twisting way with words in the finest traditions of English nonsense-speak; a captivating singing voice, especially on the subject of booze; the ability to chattily charm an audience without stinting on queerness; he even plays the spoons. As narrative, the show’s choppy and lacking in tension – the whole NY experience is skated over – but frequently surprising. Overall, a great introduction to an outstanding 21st-century talent. Assembly George Square, to Aug 26
Lady Rizo: ★★★★★
It’s early in the Fringe to make rash endorsements but what the hell: if you only see one cabaret show this year, see Lady Rizo. A fixture on the New York circuit making her European debut, she’s soulful, uproarious, slightly scary and utterly irresistible – all erratic eroticism, ‘eye choreography’ and chandelier earrings. Her voice is awesome: she sings songs about passion, revenge and freedom by Piaf, Hendrix, Dolly Parton, Nine Inch Nails and herself. She’s also crazy funny, thinking and speaking on her feet, doing freaky bits of oral business with sequinned gloves and roses, dragging a punter behind a screen for an awkward silhouetted liaison. And she’s inspirational. She gets more juice out of her opening number than most Fringe shows manage in an hour and I nominate her closing number as the national anthem of cabaret. Go, go, go. Assembly George Square, to Aug 27
Vaudeville Schmuck: ★★★★☆
Mat Ricardo’s new show doesn’t actually feature that much new skills work, which is a bit of a disappointment given how few jugglers of his calibre are on the circuit. But it doesn’t really matter when there’s so much else going on in this show, and so much nimble balancing of other kinds. Ricardo cuts an almost helplessly endearing stage presence, interweaving tales of his career history and personal insecurities with a rich and evidently heartfelt knowledge of the heritage of variety performance, all illustrated with video material and integrated with details of own practice and preoccupations. This flesh is so pleasingly added to the bones of his juggling skills that when fails to pull off his new centrepiece routine without a hitch, the slip doesn’t disappoint. It is the point. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 26
I’ve been looking forward to chairing today’s Cabaret Uncovered panel at the BBC’s pop-up Potterow venue ever since getting up here. That’s partly because it’s an excuse to talk cabaret with some brilliant people: Dusty Limits and EastEnd Cabaret (both acts on fantastic form this Edinburgh); veteran Scottish cabaret producer and my fellow TO&ST Award judge Frodo McDaniel; and the Fringe Society’s Louise Oliver, who was instrumental in the form getting its own section in the official programme last year. And it’s partly because Bourgeois & Maurice will be playing at the event and I haven’t had a chance to check out this year’s outfits.
But it’s also always a treat to sing cabaret’s praises to potential punters unfamiliar with the form. I’d been hoping there’d be enough interest from general festival-goers to reward the BBC’s decision to programme the panel, and an accompanying TO&ST showcase gig at the Potterow at 11.30 tonight, starring some of the finest talent on the Fringe. It’s thrilling, then, to hear it’s been far and away the most popular part of their events line-up, with more than 700 requests for tickets. The cabaret takeover continues…I’ll report back later on how the event goes and where you can hear some clips.
Auntie Myra’s Fun Show: ★★★★☆
Rancid drag queen Myra DuBois (above) does a conspicuously slapdash kids’ magic show with hilarious results. One of the sharpest, funniest rising stars of cabaret, DuBois delivers effortless control of a room, killer wit with a sick edge and deadpan disregard for basic things like singing in tune and getting a trick right. The show could lose some time or gain some strutcture but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the accomplished performance of flagrant unprofessionalism this much since Meow Meow. Voodoo Rooms, to Aug 26
I missed the glitzily-advertised ‘Briefs’ during its spell at the Udderbelly in London and have to admit to being pleasantly surprised at how much is going on in this show. Combining neon-shaded alt-drag clowning, La Clique-style variety and a stealthy dose of satirical nous, this small troupe has come a long way from the back of a Brisbane bookshop in 2008. The deadpan plate-spinning, impressive aerialism, strongman feats and tranny mess are highly entertaining but it’s the almost incidental takes on class, race and sexuality introduced by compere Fez Faanana that mark this out. Underbelly, Bristo Square, to Aug 27
Dusty Limits: Post Mortem: ★★★★★
‘Post Mortem’, playing the Free Fringe, is the strongest hour I’ve seen from Dusty Limits in some time. Structured around the simple but effective theme of reaching 40 and getting morbid, the show sees the pioneering cabaret performer deploy his consummate wit and assured audience rapport in the service of a terrific set that combines strong original songs (written with ace accompanist Michael Roulston) with gorgeous covers. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Glory Box’ are stand-outs, though ‘Sinnerman’ is perhaps shortchanged. Dusty Limits makes it look easy. It isn’t. Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, to Aug 19
EastEnd Cabaret: Notoriously Kinky: ★★★★★
EastEnd Cabaret – vaguely Eastern European femme fatale Bernadette Byrne and her stalky, hermaphroditic accompanist Victor Victoria – just keep getting better. After storming the Free Fringe last year, they’re at the Underbelly with some new and some familiar material. Their original songs– always about some interesting angle on sex, always musically rich, always engaging as stories – are consistently strong; the duo’s grotesque-yet-endearing personae and the rapport between them continue to grow richer and more satisfying; and they can work an audience like nobody’s business. A treat. Underbelly, Cowgate, to Aug 26
Eccentronic Presents: We Won’t Rock You: ★★★★☆
Eccentronic (John Callaghan and Hypnotique) are a bit like the Warp Records version of Frisky & Mannish. In ‘We Won’t Rock You’ the duo set out to create a hit musical while wrestling with notions of artistic independence, playing the Theremin, creating situationist installation pieces with the audience and dishing out cheese toasties. There’s also room for Morrissey, Heston Blumenthal and an avant-garde ‘Agadoo’. It’s a chaotic show, at times too clever for its own good – the pair’s delivery isn’t as nimble as their writing and the Free Fringe setting isn’t necessarily conducive to the sustained audience attention the latter requires – but Callaghan is unflappably upbeat and there’s wit and ambition in spades. It took a while but by the end, I was rocked. Laughing Horse @ Espionage, to Aug 12
It seems a shame to leave London with so much cool stuff going on – Olympic fever! Antony’s Meltdown! Some actual sun! – but it’s Edinburgh Fringe time so north I go. And not that reluctantly: 2012 is the second year the Fringe programme has included an official Cabaret section and it’s heaving with temptations, as
are many other sections (see my preview here). This is also the year we’re launching TO&ST, the Time Out and Soho Theatre Edinburgh Cabaret Award, which I’m helping to judge. Plus half the London scene will be up there so I won’t be too homesick. Ben Walters
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