Always 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.
If 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.
Our 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.
Second 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.
Next 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.
Our 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.
More 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.
Top 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!