Variety and Burlesque at Brighton Festival

Feature in Issue 18-3 | Autumn 2006

The Famous Spiegeltent returned to Brighton Festival – twofold, with a full programme of music, cabaret, variety and burlesque running daily in two 'tents' (for anyone who has not yet encountered a Spiegeltent, it is a glorious in-the-round construction of wooden booths, mirrored pillars and stained glass windows). On most evenings, the larger of the two hosted La Clique the variety show par excellence that has wowed the world's festivals over the past few years. The 2006 version sees a welcome return for magical mistress of the disappearing hankie, Ursula Martinez, in-house kooky crooner Camille (La Fille du Cirque) and wide-mouthed girl Miss Behave, who now swallows not only swords but also spiked table legs. Special guests for Brighton included The English Gents, a comic stiff upper-lipped acrobalance act, and the sparkly-eyed German bathing beauty David O'Mer, who splish-splashes through a series of exquisite balances above, in and over a bathtub full of water.

In the second ‘Gaiete' tent, entertainment options included Paul Zenon's Hellfire Club, which had some very nice moments in the form of a pair of rather wonderful nipple-tassel-twirling burlesque dancers, a (You're the) Devil in Disguise Elvis impersonator and a truly bizarre eat-your-heart-out-Dr-Frankenstein electrocution act by The Great Voltini, ably assisted by busty rubber-clad Nurse Electra – in which, amongst many other tricks, he powers a light bulb stuck up his bum. Just don't try this at home, kids. But on the night I saw it, Mr Z himself seemed a little below par (England were playing and I think he'd have rather been down the pub watching than entertaining ‘a crowd of girls and gays'). He was not helped by his extra special guest Arthur Brown. For anyone under forty, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had one big hit, Fire, and this was milked to the hilt, but it was truly dire despite the best efforts of accompanying musician Nick Pyn (who should steer well clear of this gig) and the 'pop star' formerly known as the God of Hellfire seemed rather sully and ungracious about the sound problems he was experiencing, so sent the audience flocking out in droves. My companion for the evening nipped out for a fag and was gone a while – a quizzical look from me on his return brought forth the confession that he was lurking outside the main tent listening in to the bit in La Clique where Ursula M. sings her Nuevo Flamenco classic Croydon.

Afternoon treats included Ida Barr's Bingo, in which the (artificial) hip-hopping granny treated us to an interactive immersion theatre experience not dissimilar to a trip to the local Gala Bingo Hall, but with the added frisson of La Barr's re-worked Missy Eliot and Eminem songs, not to mention a truly awesome array of prizes purchased from Poundstretcher, which included heavy duty rubber gardening gloves, scented candles and 100 white envelopes, given to those amongst us who could keep up with her alternative bingo calls (65 – my chiropodist Clive!) to reach the nirvana of a full house.

Over at the Spiegeltent's partner venue, the Komedia, could be found a number of music-cabaret evenings, including a welcome return for the Tiger Lillies – minus the circus acts and puppets of recent years, just them in all their grotesque-burlesque glory. They are so intrinsically theatrical in their macabre explorations of the darker side of life (and death) that they really don't need anything else... Brighton's own cabaret-cum-glam rock maestros David Devant and His Spirit Wife were back with an evening entitled The Lost World of David Devant, a multimedia punk pop/performance art extravaganza in which the incorrigible Las Vegas Mermaids played hostess and MC for the evening, interspersing the music sets and films from Devant (edgy arty glam rock for the 21st century) and Veldt (cool and angsty B-movie soundtracks) with love 'em or hate 'em gasp-inducing vignettes – which include a drug-addled 'nam veteran's lament, a trailer-trash floozy's ballad, and an appearance by a dementedly dancing giant gingerbread man. Catch them if you can...

Also starring at the Komedia in a week-long run were the Mohican-haired Gamarjobat with A Shut Up Comedy from Japan, the show that has given a new lease of life to the artform that dare not speak its name – mime. This is in effect two shows: the first half is their fantastically slick and seductive street show, visual gags and interactions with the audience toppling into each other with frantic energy. The second part is a rather odd, slow and gently humorous re-enacting of the Rocky story. It dips and sways a little, but is redeemed by the extraordinary multi-characterisations acted out by the two performers, and their undeniable skill as word-free mime artists. Look out for their second show, to be seen at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe – as will be many other Komedia and Spiegeltent supported artists.

This article in the magazine

Issue 18-3
p. 27