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!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th January 2014

Sammy Mavis JuniorThe Burlesque Show now seems comfortably to occupy a regular slot every January at the Royal and Derngate. We saw the first one, back in July 2011, which at the time hit us as a bombshell of unexpected delight. It came back six months later, with some changes but many similarities, when it confirmed its place in our portfolio of must-sees. Alas, we couldn’t make the date for last year’s show, but this year it was confidently scheduled for two nights (and both sell-outs I believe), we got great seats for the Saturday night show, and I knew we would be in for all sorts of treats.

Beau RocksBurlesque is a fascinating genre. If you’ve not been to one of these shows before, you might just be expecting a sequence of stripteases. It’s true that some rather lovely ladies peel off their layers down to a bare minimum, but, as Kenny Everett would have said, it’s all in the best possible taste. Not remotely smutty or pornographic, these routines are more titillating than anything else; they are likely to be elegant, witty, downright hilarious, or a combination of all three. In addition, you have a number of alternative acts: singers, comedians, magicians and “variety”, into which slot any number of completely screwball entertainers could fit. In the absence of a programme you’ve got absolutely no idea what they’ve got lined up for you – which gives it an additional frisson – and the sequence of acts is never predictable.

Luna RosaIf you’ve seen earlier Burlesques at the Royal, there were a few changes to the style in this year’s show (although I don’t know if these changes were in place last year). For one thing, our delightful hostess (more of whom shortly) encouraged us to react with noisy abandon each time a young lady got a little daring with her déshabillement. In the past we might have just sat there respectfully appreciative, but clearly that’s not what they want from us anymore. They want feedback! The man to my right needed no further encouragement to whoop excitedly at the merest drop of a glove, and I suspect his wife may occasionally have wanted the earth to open and swallow her up at his reactions. Still, like any good husband, he was only doing what he was told.

Glorian GrayThere were also (I felt) slightly fewer acts this time and our hostess played a greater role throughout the evening’s proceedings. No problem there, as it was the return of Sarah Louise Young, this time in her alternative persona of Sammy Mavis Junior, a trailer park slut with a heart of gold. She spoils us with some great comedy songs, like “You’re the Greatest Audience”, “Trailer Boys” and a love song to her new man, who was (allegedly) in the audience that night, where she confessed how deeply and for how long she would love him. She’s got a great rapport with the audience, convinced one poor chap to join her up on stage with her doing press-ups, and carried on her teasing of the people in the boxes, who turned out to include the same Trevor whom she sang to on her iPhone two years ago.

Rod LaverAs in previous years, we were treated to three ladies who did some stripteasing, but I think it’s fair to say they were a more varied selection than on previous occasions. Miss Beau Rocks was the opening and closing act, and she epitomises the beautiful and sensual Burlesque style (but with a nice touch of cheekiness). We also met the Exotic Luna Rosa, who performed two striking routines, and who either challenges or confirms your beliefs that tattoos are or are not sexy. And we were entertained by Miss Glorian Gray, who I think was my favourite act of the entire show, a splendidly gutsy buxom lady who danced and stripped whilst bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Yes, you read that right. It had to be seen to be believed. It was hilarious, and somehow you could strangely appreciate it as its own art form, or sport. I could imagine that at the Olympics. It’s a shame we don’t see Miss Kittie Klaw performing her routines anymore – I loved the one she did a couple of years ago that involved finding spiders between all the layers of her clothing – but she’s “management” and “stagehand” now, so we have to be content with just the occasional purr from her.

Rod Laver and Alexandra HofgartnerFor variety we had the amazing Rod Laver – no, not the legendary Australian tennis champ, but a circus performer who can do incredible things with ping pong balls. We’re not talking anything seedy Bangkok style here, more a question of holding them in his mouth, then projectiling in all directions, against all surfaces and catching them (orally) on the return. He can take five balls in his mouth; no sniggering, please. The more balls he devours the more his cheeks puff out so that he looks like the old MGM cartoon dog Droopy. Pure variety, extraordinarily skilful, and very very funny. After the interval he returned with Performance Artist Alexandra Hofgartner for more ping pong merrily on high, where the balls almost took on a foreplay role as they were passed between the two of them in all kinds of semi-erotic ways. Not quite Royal Variety Show material, but very rewarding nonetheless.

The Great VoltiniAnd then an act that defies everything you can think of: health and safety, sanity, logic, and the laws of electrical resistance. Meet the Great Voltini, whose act involves sending charges of electricity through his, and his partner Nurse Electra’s, bodies to illuminate light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and power machines. His pièce de resistance comes when he shoves an electric probe into his backside and it lights up a halo on his head. You think you’ve seen it all? Not till you’ve seen this act you haven’t. Hilarious and terrifying.

Pete FirmanIt’s always the magician that seems to be top of the bill, and Pete Firman comes completely worthy of that accolade. This chap takes sleight of hand to another planet. I’ve worked out how he does his tricks; either he can move his hands at an outrageously fast speed so that the brain can’t process what the eyes see, or he simply manages to make us look at something else whilst he’s “doing the business”. Or both. Of course, he distracts us with brilliantly funny chatting with the audience, bringing assistants on to the stage, and chucking monkey nuts around; but at the end of the day, he can really make magic happen. His trick of having someone write their name on a tenner which is then miraculously discovered in a sealed envelope inside his wallet is spectacular. But the thing that really got me was his ability to pass a handkerchief through the microphone stand. He did it right in front of our eyes. Twice. I’m a sucker for magic; I so want to believe in it, that you could fool me with the easiest trick imaginable and I’d think it was the fifth dimension. Anyway, Mr Firman was great, I could watch him for hours.

If you want to find out more about the Ministry of Burlesque (it would be great to know what their civil servants wear) you can visit their website here. Unquestionably this was another Burlesque triumph at the Royal. A little teasing, a little horror and a lot of humour. More please!