It was a warm and grand welcome back to the Ministry of Burlesque’s Burlesque Show, first seen at the Royal and Derngate a staggering twelve years ago and a regular highlight of the annual entertainment calendar ever since – at least, until Covid had other ideas. This was the first Burlesque show at the R&D post-pandemic, although I was surprised to see it has been five years since our last attendance. Is it still the must-see production to warm our winter cockles?
Sadly, not quite. Whilst it still offers an engaging and outrageous host, and a very wide-ranging selection of variety artistes, there was something rather (dare I say it) amateur about the whole proceedings on Saturday night. Instead of a well-oiled, slick programme of entertainment, it had the air of a rather ramshackle, under-rehearsed presentation, even though all the usual elements were there that have in the past been so enjoyable.
Our hostess (she described herself as compère, but surely she should be the commère), was Eva von Schnippisch, one of the alter egos of comic actor Stephanie Ward, and she’s a loud, brash presence who encourages us all to be as naughty as we like. Straight outta 1930s Berlin, she’s great fun and kept the whole thing moving pretty well, with a few Cabaret-style songs and some excellent interaction with the audience.
In fact, the first half of the first half of the show (so to speak) was absolutely superb. We started off with Lena Lenman, burlesque star, doing a saucy strip routine which culminated in her being soaked in a bottle of – I want to say champagne – but I think it was cava; and most of the first few rows got their fair share of sparking spray as well. A great start.
Then it was the turn of Pete Firman, the fantastic magician, who nearly always turns up in these Burlesque shows, and nearly always does precisely the same tricks, which definitely always baffle and amaze me. Each time I see Mr Firman I’m determined to keep my eye on his hands at all times, so I can see how he does that trademark trick of his – the incredible restoration of a burnt twenty pound note (in this case a fiver) from a bunch of flames into its former glory in a sealed envelope, sealed within another envelope and secreted in a zipped wallet. And every time I fail – I allow myself to get diverted by his nuts (if you’ve seen the act, you’ll understand). He’s a great asset to the Burlesque Show and always a delight to see him.
Next up it was another act who has graced this stage many a time – and many a time has hosted the show – Peggy Sued, a comic creation by the superb Abigail Collins. What she can’t do with a set of hula-hoops isn’t worth doing, but she’s also a brilliant comedy acrobat with a great cocktail-glass-on-the-head trick. Massive fun and hugely entertaining.
So far, so good – but this is where it started to unravel. Our next act was Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. I’d never come across him before, and his is a clever act; with all the appearance of a Penny Farthing cyclist, he combines hip hop and rap with awfully decent cultured English upper class tones – resulting in what he calls chaphop. A terrific idea – but for some reason, on that night, in that audience, it just didn’t work. I think it was necessary to have a crystal clear sound system so that you could appreciate the nuance of every line of this songs, but the clever lyrics were often hard to make out. Unfortunately, the act just sucked the energy out of us all – and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both extremely bored (and rather irritated) by his performance. Certainly the crowd reaction to him was muted in comparison with the other acts. To be fair, I really enjoyed his version of David Bowie’s Starman, with which he finished his second act slot. As for the rest – well, it wasn’t for me.
With energy drained, I was longing for the interval but first we had burlesque artiste Fancy Chance, who’s been here on and off over the years. In the first half she gave us her Alice – yes the Lewis Carroll one – which ends with a semi-strip performance. Quirky, for sure; but I couldn’t quite work out how appropriate it was to have a sexualised burlesque performance by someone representing Alice, who’s meant to be seven years old, and with the knowledge that Lewis Carroll was sexually attracted to her. It was half clever and half yucky. Her second act performance was as the (late) Artist formerly known as Prince, which we’d seen her do before, but this time it felt very straggly and uninspired. Fortunately Lena Lenman returned at the end of the show to finish off with a classic feather burlesque routine which was well worth the waiting for.
At curtain call time, Eva von Schnippisch brought the cast on to the stage for final bows. Lena Lenman (cheers); Mr B (slightly fewer cheers); Pete Firmin (“Oh no, he’s gone to catch his train”); Abi Collins (“Oh no, she’s gone too”); Fancy Chance (“Is Fancy Chance still here or has she gone too? Gone too”)… there’s no surer way of letting an audience know that the cast don’t really care about them than going missing at curtain call. Of course, if they do have to rush for trains that’s perfectly reasonable – but don’t call them out on stage just to discover they’ve gone AWOL. Just do what they do with a stand-up comedy night and say, “your acts tonight were A, B, and C, I’ve been D – goodnight!” This was a perfect example of how under-rehearsed and ramshackle the whole presentation was. They really need to smarten up that aspect of the show.
P. S. Huge kudos to front-row Mark, who was teased by virtually every member of the cast and who, by the sound of it, stayed stony-faced throughout; handsome but morose. That was until Abi Collins cajoled him up on stage to throw hoops at her, when he proved himself to be an excellent sport. He was virtually an additional member of the cast!
Three-sy Does It!