A beginner's guide to cabaret

Ten steps to understanding the scene that's taking the capital by storm

Lady Alex, host of the the Wam Bam Club Lady Alex, host of the the Wam Bam Club - © Sophia Shorr Kon

London has been enjoying a cabaret boom for a decade now, from vintage-infused nudie burlesque to truly bonkers alternative drag acts. A scene that began in underground clubs and dives is increasingly finding its way into the mainstream, from bespoke pop-up venues on the South Bank to collaborations with major institutions such as the Old Vic and National Portrait Gallery.

Yet many Londoners who might have heard about the cabaret revival still aren’t quite sure what the word means, while to an ignorant few – Simon Cowell and Gary Barlow are two high-profile offenders – it’s even a term of abuse.

Ben Walters has put together a few pointers to make sense of it all…

  • 1

    Cabaret hates rules

    ‘Cabaret’ is an overlapping group of constantly mutating forms of performance that can’t be pinned down. These ‘rules’ are really just observations about the kind of show we at Time Out list under the name.

  • 2

    Cabaret is like Switzerland

    Nothing to do with chocolate, cuckoo clocks or anonymous banking – more that it has a border with everywhere on the artistic map, cross-fertilising music, comedy, variety, circus, burlesque, live art, theatre, dance, clubbing, even cinema.

  • 3

    Cabaret is fun

    You could sit through a play or an album without once cracking a smile and still rate it. Cabaret? Not so much. Laughs, gasps and good cheap thrills are the name of the game.

  • 4

    Cabaret is not normal

    That said, a good cabaret show isn’t just titillating – it’s transgressive, upending everyday ideas about art and bodies, politics and sex, provoking as well as pleasing. It loves you but sometimes it likes to see you squirm.

  • 5

    Cabaret makes eye contact

    There’s no fourth wall here – performers can see and hear you and will let you know it. The word ‘cabaret’ means ‘room’: what happens in a show depends on the dynamic between the performer and the audience in that place on that night. This is not television!

  • 6

    Cabaret doesn’t do dress rehearsals

    Of course, artists prepare their material – well, most of the time – but a show that can be completely run through without an audience ain’t worth the name ‘cabaret’.

  • 7

    Cabaret needs your energy

    That’s because, however talented, a cabaret artist is not merely a performer but the leader of a collaboration. They can push a boulder so far on their own but with your help they can lift it over the top.

  • 8

    Cabaret likes a drink

    A little social lubrication can work wonders in getting the collective juices flowing, especially in a sometimes buttoned-up culture like ours.

  • 9

    Cabaret is like church (in a good way)

    When a cabaret show really flies, the feeling can be congregational and euphoric – everyone in the room has not just participated in but contributed to something special, something bigger than any one ego.

  • 10

    Cabaret can change the world

    This is cabaret’s secret power: it reminds us that what we do in any given situation has consequences. We all matter and we can all change things. And that applies outside the room as well as in…

London's best cabaret clubs

You know what cabaret is, now find out where to watch it. With niches ranging from retro-style burlesque to drag queens, satirical wordsmiths to avant-garde situationists and polished character comedians to spine-stretching circus acts, no two shows are the same, and you certainly won't be stuck for choice.