New Variety and Vaudeville

Feature in Issue 19-2 | Summer 2007

So what’s ‘new variety’? Well, in my book variety (new or old) includes circus. The variety halls which are still spread across Europe (although few in the UK are still in use for that purpose) were set up with the stage depth and height necessary for acrobatics, juggling and aerial work. The typical variety programme would balance (excuse the pun) the circus acts with song-and-dance routines and comedy turns.

The Insect Circus is an interesting take on the variety show format. It started life as a much-loved installation touring street arts festivals in its own beautifully painted caravan. The conceit, as the name implies, is a circus in which the exotic beasts doing the daring stunts are all insects, bugs and invertebrates. So visitors are treated to models in display cases, automata, posters and costumes that celebrate the daring feats of wriggling worms, lumbering snails, beautiful butterflies and dastardly wasps. Then came the idea of creating a live show, brought to the perfectly preserved Hoxton Hall, one of London’s original music hall / variety venues. A massive amount of care and attention to detail has gone into the creation of this show. It is clear, even had I not known it, that the artistic team behind the Insect Circus are visual artists and makers: as each insect act (oh all right, it’s people dressed as insects) appears on stage, we ooh and aah at the lush and clever costumes and props. There are some gorgeous set pieces: a lovely aerial act from The Flutterbys; Ephemera the Evanescent Mayfly (who only lives for a day) which involves a wonderful Isadora Duncan pastiche; a fluttering moth pinned by her wings by knife-thrower The Great Flingo; The Mighty Mites, a ludicrously funny puppet skit.

But there are also fillers, such as a praying mantis tango which threw away an opportunity to explore the dance between sex and death. There is also a real imbalance of performance skills: when, for example, Marisa Carnesky comes onto the stage in her various roles (which include Fakira, Queen of Mystery – a wonderful reworking of the Cabinet of Swords), there is a feeling that the ante is being upped: here is someone who has the oomph to walk onto Marie Lloyd’s music hall stage as if she has a right to be there, no apologies. In comparison, our ringmaster (project maestro and maker Mark Copeland) seems a little too nervously self-aware.

Chris Cresswell is someone who knows a bit about taking a stage. The Dirty Diamond Review, which he comperes and produces, was set up in collaboration with Komedia specifically to support and nurture new variety, the acts brought together with that same age-old intention of entertaining with a mix of skills-based physical performance, music and comedy. Sadly, it would seem that this venture will be no more. The final show gave us the very able juggler Max Haverkamp and acrobatic clown Annette Fiaschi, who presented their witty and skilful individual acts, then appeared together with a very lovely, gently humorous acrobalance piece; speciality act The Great Voltini, who did wonders with electricity; and the Bees’ knees who gave us their excellent renditions of classic ‘eccentric dance’ numbers. Although the quality of work seen was, on the whole high, there were a few dips and some odd decisions on running order – most notably the choice of a very average tissu act by Flame as the finale. Coming after the superlative hula-hoop act of world champion Angie Humphries, which brought the house down, this was inevitably something of an anticlimax.

Meanwhile, Chris Cresswell’s main venture, Voodoo Vaudeville, carries on regardless. Having last year devised a theatre show (Skin of the Moon), the company reverted to an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink cabaret-burlesque mish-mash for Mardi Gras. It starts magnificently: Cresswell is resplendent in his theatre-clown persona, balancing feathers on his nose with a hangdog expression while sidekick and foil Rachel Blackman establishes her delightful Southern Belle character Evangeline (Lord, save her soul!).

She’s a great female clown, and they make a terrific team. There’s a wonderfully theatrical entrance for the musicians and chorus who arrive as a jazz funeral procession, a motley crew of masked zombies and painted hussies bearing a coffin through the audience. We are then treated to a series of great acts in quick succession, including Voodoo favourite Mim King, who presents a snake-armed contortion dance; China Delius, who gives us a delightful quick-change peek-a-boo act; and Katie Sarabia, who charms and spooks in equal measure with her seductive triple-faced mask. But then it’s interval time, and it’s downhill from thereon in. ‘He sabotages his own work,’ says my companion of Cresswell, and I can’t help but agree. Parts two and three contain some strong acts (notably an appallingly funny assault on political correctness by the wheelchair-bound Screaming Stephen Hawkins, and a welcome appearance by that no-good puppet, Baby Warhol), but overall both quality and pace slacken. There are moments of jaw dropping awfulness, particularly when the stage is occupied (again) by scantily clad burlesque hopefuls doing some sort of sixth-form dance-cum-performance-art routine. I wanted to shout ‘Get ‘em off’ but was afraid of being misunderstood. It is frustrating because when at their best, Voodoo are truly magnificent. Discipline is what is needed!

Come Into My Parlour offers many delights and delectations, but suffers from some of the same difficulties. Like Voodoo, the company can always bring in a crowd, and they romp merrily through their Victorian sketch show with gay abandon. There are Tom Lehrer songs (including a delightful rendition of Poisoning Pigeons in the Park by company star Miss Fay), films (by Katie Etheridge) that re-enact classic What the Butler Saw early burlesque vignettes, a mixed bag of magic and illusion (including a clever but rather too slowly paced escapology act by company mainman Tony Ashton), and plenty of robust physical comedy and ham acting. The whole thing is loosely held together by a very thin plot: it’s like a revival of the Victorian am dram show that Spymonkey might have been parodying in Cooped. And it is framed very nicely, the audience invited into the game by walkabout preachers, Sally Army lasses, freak sideshows and strumming troubadours who all help to provide an immersive and inclusive theatrical environment. The difficulties they share with Voodoo are a seeming inability to say no: no to performers lacking the necessary skills; no to over-lengthy acts; no to inclusion of scenes, set pieces or characters that have no logical reason to be there.

Both companies are at a point where they need to take stock and decide what they want. If the answer is a semi-professional three-times-a-year jolly romp for friends in the old hometown then fine, carry on as is. If the answer is a professional touring show that could win new audiences countrywide, then the answer in both cases is tighten up, rehearse, get a director, and don’t be afraid to cut the crap.

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-2
p. 28