Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th January 2017

Burlesque ShowOnce again, the Ministry of Burlesque have trundled into town bringing their collection of stunning costumes, jugglers balls, magic tricks and nipple tassels. We’ve been coming every year since 2011 and it’s always a sheer delight. Last year’s show was just a tad of a disappointment as there were so many acts giving us the same sheer delight that they had given us in previous years. That equates to sheer delight for newbies, and pleasurable reminders for us old hands.

Lili La SHowever, this year they rang the changes in true style. The biggest and brightest change was in the beguiling personage of our new host, Miss Lili la Scala. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Lili once before, in Edinburgh last summer, where we decided to partake of one of her Another F*cking Variety Shows, a late night cabaret entertainment where Lili introduces us to a range of artistes plying their trade at the Fringe; and it really was a splendid show. For the Burlesque Show, she looked perfect in the elegant setting of the Royal Theatre, entertaining us with songs old and new. Mashing up two different Let Me Entertain Yous is an inspired way to start a show; I really love how Lili retros a modern song into a cabaret setting. In Edinburgh she gave us a moving but refreshing Space Oddity; in this show we enjoyed her semi-operatic version of Female of the Species. She has a winning combination of demure and daft which makes her quite irresistible in many ways; what the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called Strictly a Female Female.

lena-maeStarting the show, and finishing us off, so to speak, was the delectable Miss Lena Mae with two classic Burlesque strip routines, full of allure, humour, teasing, and costumes with surprises of their own. We hadn’t had the pleasure of her company before and clearly it’s been long overdue. She conveys all the joy of what she’s doing out into the auditorium and we love her back for it in return. Classy, sophisticated and with more than a twinkle in her eye. We also had two (well two and a half really) delicious helpings of Miss Abigail Collins; Peggy Suedfirst in her guise as Miss Garden Verandah, where, in a floral-inspired outfit, she performs her amazing hoop act, and secondly as Miss Peggy Sued, who spent the interval in the bar introducing herself to unsuspecting punters (well, draping herself across them) and then came out and did her extraordinary balancing act. It’s unlike any other you’ve seen – basically she picks on two blokes and then does the splits whilst balancing on their shoulders. Well done Gary and Steve for your sterling effort. It was lovely to see Miss Sued back cavorting on stage, pulling her leotard here and there to prevent it from chafing her personal areas, singing and dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

Alexandra HofgartnerMore acrobatics – of the slightly more traditional kind – were provided by frequent visitor Miss Alexandra Hofgartner, effortlessly weaving herself in and out of a hoop in the sky with only a long chiffon for extra support. Miss Hofgartner exudes dignity with everything she does and is always a wonderful addition to any Burlesque show. Another new face to us, Robin Dale, gave us an intriguing juggling act with wine glasses (sometimes filled with “real” wine),boon-and-bailie then came back in the second half with his friend Jack Bailie to perform further feats of juggling whilst they both took their clothes off. Fortunately, protective top hats were at the ready to prevent anyone in the audience from having a stroke. A very funny act, but be careful where you sit, or else you might get Robin’s thong flung in your face.

Pete FirmanAnd you can never get too much Pete Firman. We’ve seen him perform his magic many times and on each occasion he perplexes me. Just a few tricks for this show – the cards that magically keep increasing in number, the rope that gets cut in two and somehow self-heals, and the £20 note taken from a member of the audience that disappears and is found, not in a monkey-nut but sealed inside his zipped wallet. I specifically watched him like a hawk during that last trick because I was determined not to take my eye off where I think the note was kept during most of the act. Fat lot of use that was; although I think I may be one stage closer to working it out. Just maybe. The audience proved something of a handful for Mr Firman, though. His choice of assistant for the rope trick was Pat in the front row. Would she get up and help him? Would she buffalo. But Mr F was not in the mood for picking on someone else. Resistance was futile. When she finally got up, after much persuasion, she had no need for alarm, it all went swimmingly well. Would the same thing happen with the £20 note trick? Mr F’s victim was the shy and retiring Phil – not! If ever a magician’s assistant gave as good as he got, it was our Phil. I think I actually saw Mr F – temporarily – stumped for a response. I guess that’s always going to be a risk when you call on bright sparks from the audience.

And, as an audience, we really were fired up by the whole show, from start to finish. Our willingness to get stuck in and react noisily to whatever shenanigans was happening on stage, helped this particular instalment of the Burlesque Show to be (probably) the most enjoyable I’ve ever seen. We even miaowed incessantly at Stage Manager/Producer Miss Kittie Klaw as she cleared the stage ready for each new act. She responded with some miaows back and the occasional bum-wiggle. Every act really performed their socks off (literally in a few cases) and it was a very funny and sexy night’s entertainment. Fantastically well done to one and all!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal Theatre Northampton, 22nd January 2016

Burlesque ShowA cock-up on the ticketing front meant that I booked for the Burlesque Show on the Friday and not the Saturday, thereby making us miss out on the first Screaming Blue Murder of the season. Drat and double drat. At least it meant we saw The Burlesque Show in super duper Row C seats so that we could be at the heart of the action. As usual it was a sell-out; and you can tell it’s Burlesque night by the audience: a plethora of bohemian ladies with flowers in their hair and gentlemen wearing bowties. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t quite come up to scratch in the fashion parade. Must do better.

Peggy SuedOur hostess, as last year, was Peggy Sued, the enthusiastic and uninhibited alter ego of Miss Abi Collins. Overly acrobatic wherever possible, recalling her ten previous husbands with a hula hoop for each occasion, she has a brilliant connection with the audience, and she’s a constant joy. I’ve never been involved in a crowd-surfing event before, but I ably helped propel Miss Sued from Row B to Row D with a gentlemanly placing of my right hand on her left thigh. And then back again. She chose Stephen from a couple of rows behind to join her on stage and help her with her hoops; we’re all hoping his fiancé has forgiven him.

Immodesty BlaizeFor the ultimate in glamour, we were treated to two helpings of Miss Immodesty Blaize, if that’s not an insensitive way of putting it. She takes the Burlesque genre and delivers it with all the style, taste and panache that you could hope for. Her first act was “Venus in furs”, which involved some very expensive looking costumes and classic black feather fans. It was all very charming and seductive. Her second act, which wrapped up the show, involved her wearing what looked like a jewel encrusted nightie and was also the height of taste and decorum until she suffered a slight wardrobe malfunction, which meant her final tableau displayed a little more of her upper half than she might have expected. A true star, she nevertheless carried it off with complete aplomb, and even visually referred to it in her curtain call, when, with a quick flash, she made – shall we say – a clean breast of it. A class act in every way.

Rod LaverAlso on the bill from last year – and from three years ago – was juggler and comedy ping pong ball man Rod Laver, performing his occasionally grotesque, always hilarious, how many ping pong balls can he get in his mouth act. His white facial make up and lugubrious expression, when combined with swollen cheeks because of the balls in his mouth always reminds me of cartoon hero Droopy. DroopyIn fact, have you ever seen them on the same variety bill? In the second half, he pals up with the divine Miss Alexandra Hofgartner for their Weimar Republic cabaret act which always entertains (even if it is three times we’ve seen it now). Miss Hofgartner had earlier given us her high acrobatic act where she defies gravity by voluptuously draping herself around two thin sheets of red material suspended from the roof.

Alexandra HofgartnerThere were some new acts too. An excellent addition to the Ministry of Burlesque mix is Kiki Lovechild, a silent (well almost) clown who can convey both laugh out loud silliness and charming innocence. For his first appearance he gave us his chapeaugraphy routine, where with just a piece of felt that resembles an oversized polo mint, he recreates 20 or so different characters with varying headgear. It reminded me a little of Ennio Marchetto, rapidly changing styles with just a quick flick of his prop; very funny and inventive. For his second piece he gives us an act of almost childlike innocence, where he looks for a rare butterfly to complete his collection but realises their true worth is when they are alive rather than pinned in cases. In the end he brings them all back to life in one huge colourful flutter. It’s a really charming act, and I made sure to bring a butterfly home with me.

Kiki LovechildThere was a new Burlesque lady in the form of Oriana, who gave us a very striking strip routine that didn’t hide (why should it) her more substantial figure and who is expert in the ancient of art of making the tassels twirl in different directions. We also met Beau Dicea (I believe that was her name), who gave us a comedy burlesque routine where padded undergarments took on a life of their own. And to redress the balance of the sexes, there was also a very funny and skilful act from Edd Muir, performing strong acrobatics on a pole whilst recreating that famous Diet Coke advert. I haven’t seen as much builder’s bum since Peter Pan Goes Wrong’s Stage Manager Trevor.

Edd MuirThis was the fifth time we’ve seen the Ministry of Burlesque’s production of the Burlesque Show here in Northampton. It’s always a rumbustious combination of laughs, titillation, music and magic, and while it continues to deal all this up in generous proportions, why would you miss it? Anyone who was new to the show on Friday night will have had the most tremendous programme to enjoy. For us regulars, I admit I could have done with a few more new acts rather than the identical fare that we’ve enjoyed a couple of times before. It’s a perennial problem, isn’t it – you keep going back because you enjoy it so much, but you see the same acts which means you leave slightly less satisfied than the previous time. I can’t really complain – the old favourites are excellent, and they were still entertaining to see a second time. But I hope they ring some changes for next year’s show.

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th January 2015

Burlesque ShowAlways keenly awaited, it’s the return of the Burlesque Show to Northampton for its annual couple of nights at the Royal, the perfect venue for such an intimate show. New to Burlesque? One thing you should know is that there are lots of providers of Burlesquerie out there, and you have to choose your supplier wisely. On our first ever trip to the Edinburgh fringe last August we attended a Best of Burlesque show, produced by Impresario Chaz Royal. It was not only the worst Burlesque we’ve ever seen, it was also probably the worst professional performance of any type I have ever seen, in 47 years of theatregoing. Well maybe second worst after the National Theatre of Zambia’s unintentionally hilarious Othello in 1979. Instead, my advice is to stick with the Burlesque Shows from the Ministry of Burlesque. They are so much funnier and classier.

Peggy SuedIf you’d seen last year’s Burlesque Show, you would perhaps be up for fewer surprises than usual, as there was some repetition. Not, however, in the form of our hostess, the bubbly and contortionally supple Miss Abigail Collins in her guise as Peggy Sued. She MC’d the evening with cheeky deftness, an eye to any naughty opportunities that came her way, and not a little bravery. Facially she reminded me of Jenny Éclair; however, bodily she was somewhat different. Imagine Jenny Éclair, legs stretched out at outrageous angles, clad in a skimpy leotard, balancing a cocktail glass on her forehead. That’s the nearest I can get to one particular lasting image from the evening. Or, imagine her supported (if that’s the right word) by two burly blokes from the audience (Geoff and Frank), part of one of her limbs resting on each guys shoulders as they wobble and move apart from each other, which could have resulted in yet a further drain on the resources of the local A&E. Or, think of her with ten hoops, each representing an ex-husband, lithely whirling them round her body in a rhythmic trance; that’s one helluva hoopla. She’s a very funny and skilful performer who held the whole show together with her irrepressible spirit and a sense of dangerous unpredictability. She also sparred sporadically with stagehand Arran, ostensibly a grumpy teenager with a penchant for backwards baseball caps, but in real life the show’s producer and better known as Burlesque Darling Miss Kittie Klaw, whom it would be great to see performing again.

Alexandra HofgartnerOur first act was Miss Alexandra Hofgartner, who gave us a spellbinding acrobatic act straight out of old fashioned variety, supported only by two thin sheets of material dangling down from the roof. It’s the kind of act that crosses all languages, all cultures, all classes, and can’t fail to entertain. Plus instead of a lean female athlete with barely any figure you have the splendid Miss Hofgartner, who is all woman. I wouldn’t normally comment or prize performers on the strength of their looks or sex appeal – but it’s different with Burlesque. An element of titillation is the name of the game.

Elliot MasonSecond was comedy singer and guitarist Elliot Mason, and this was the third time we’ve seen him at one of these shows. The first time we saw him I thought he was hilarious. The second time, which was six months later, he did precisely the same act and songs and I thought he was repetitious. Two years have passed since we last saw him and I am happy to recognise that he is essentially a very funny guy with a gift for making nonsense songs out of banal observations. I’m afraid Mrs Chrisparkle doesn’t quite get his sense of humour, but you can’t please all the people all the time. When he returned after the interval he sang his Identity Fraud song, which is a real crowd-pleaser.

Betty Blue EyesNext we met Miss Betty Blue Eyes, a Burlesque performer of real wit and style. She performed two routines during the course of the show and they were both inventive, sexy and funny. In the first half she did a wonderful reverse-strip, where less and less of her became visible each time she appeared to take something off; an extremely clever way of going about things. For Eurovision fans, it put me in mind of the 2002 winner Marija Naumova from Latvia and her routine to her song “I Wanna”, where she changes from man to woman during the course of the number (and when she did her winning reprise, changed back from woman to man). For non-Eurovision fans, I apologise for that diversion. Miss B-B-E’s second appearance was an homage to Liberace, which included, inter alia, an unlikely performance on a tiny piano and a very long, flexible keyboard. She’s precisely what makes Burlesque a unique form of entertainment.

Rod LaverOur next performer was Rod Laver, and what he can’t do with a ping-pong ball is nobody’s business. In fact, what he can’t do with five of them is even more appropriate. He has a marvellously lugubrious appearance, looking as though he might have escaped from a very elderly and traditional orchestra somewhere, which makes the ludicrousness of his variety act even more entertaining. It’s a very funny act and always goes down well with the audience, even if he did do precisely the same act two years ago. And again, when he returns in the second half, with the aforementioned Alexandra Hofgarner, they performed the same Weimar Republic style cabaret act that they did two years ago – but it’s refreshingly funny if you haven’t seen it before. A couple of Mr Laver’s tricks went wrong, however, which was worth it to see Miss Hofgartner’s reaction; a mere flicker of her eyes suggesting increased levels of passivity but with added condescension.

Immodesty BlaizeMore traditional Burlesque came our way in the form of Miss Immodesty Blaize, a stunningly attractive and award-winning performer who stripped her way through two classic routines. This was probably Burlesque at its purest – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – and perhaps what anyone new to Burlesque might expect from the evening. Each of our three Burlesque belles had their own unique contributions to make to the show. Miss Blue-Eyes has the inventiveness, Miss Hofgartner has the attitude; and Miss Blaize knows how to look good wearing (and not wearing) a seductive Flamenco outfit.

Pete FirmanTop of the bill was the brilliant magician Mr Pete Firman, whom we saw in the last Burlesque Show but also in his terrific Trickster show here a few months ago. He wowed us with his trick where he gets a £20 note from someone in the audience, does despicable things with it, yet somehow it reappears and no harm is done. Getting to that final point includes a bag of monkey nuts and a lot of cajoling the members of the audience he chooses to help him. A bit of an uphill struggle with the guys he chose – but that only inspires him to be funnier with his chat. I’ve absolutely no idea how he makes that trick work – it defies all the laws of empirical science that you would normally take for granted. I’m just going to have to keep watching.

Fantastic entertainment for grown-ups. Long may the Ministry continue to provide us with our annual Burlesque-fest!