A bit of posh
A cluster of upmarket new cabaret venues are setting up shop in the West End. Is the scene going all classy on us?
Now, this is the 'cheap' issue of Time Out but cabaret has always had a streak of wilful perversity, so this is an article about the scene's growing posh side. The recent rise of cabaret in London is inseparable from its cheapness - low costs and ticket prices mean low stakes, upping the odds for experimentation and wide-open audiences. As the scene's artists attained higher levels of proficiency and visibility, their engagement with major institutions, from galleries and museums to corporate and commercial backers, also rose. No surprise there.
But a new phase is afoot, with the arrival of a number of venues with a distinctly classier air than your average performance pub or working men's club. Of course, there are already several supper clubs around offering a plusher audience experience - but none quite like the sites now giving the Café de Paris a run for its money in the West End glamour stakes.
This Sunday, you can choose between shows in two breathtaking deco rooms within five minutes' walk of Trafalgar Square. The Savoy Hotel has revived its 80-year-old relationship with cabaret, recruiting Dusty Limits and Holly Penfield to put on shows mixing burlesque, variety and song in the Beaufort Bar, an exquisite black-and-gold space that recently benefitted from £38,000-worth of gold leaf.
Meanwhile, off Piccadilly Circus, the Atlantic Bar and Grill has been reborn as Brasserie Zédel, a deco wonderland within which nestles the Crazy Coqs cabaret, a dazzling den of marbled opulence. This Sunday, Miss Hope Springs launches a weekly residency there; Eve Ferret will also be trying the room out for size.
And the Savoy and Zédel aren't all. Any day now (the details are fuzzy), the redeveloped Hippodrome will reopen not only as a casino but as a cabaret and music venue. The Matcham Room, named after the Leicester Square theatre's original designer and located on its former stage, has programmed the likes of cabaret stalwarts Kate Dimbleby and Polly Rae, along with Janie Dee and Tony Christie.
Other venerable institutions are paying attention too: the Royal Albert Hall has made a habit of booking the Boom Boom Club for upmarket dinner-cabaret shows in its Elgar Room (the next is on July 7). From July 11-14, Harvey Nichols is experimenting with a night called Elysium at its Prism Brasserie. Even Rada has got in on the act, offering a group of graduates with a songbook repertoire, billed as the Rada Cabaret Company, for corporate gigs. All this constitutes what New Yorkers might call a 'move uptown': venue managers and owners with serious capital have decided that mainstream audiences' appetite for cabaret has been truly whetted.
This can't be dismissed as cashing in given the rich cabaret pedigrees some of these venues boast: the Savoy hosted Coward, Gershwin and Sinatra and the Hippodrome enjoyed a halcyon period as the Talk of the Town, presenting the likes of Judy Garland, Sacha Distel and Ethel Merman's only UK cabaret run.
But are upmarket venues likely to blunt some of the subversive edges so vital to cabaret as a progressive form? Perhaps. 'We don't want to shock or alienate customers,' acknowledges the Savoy's director of communications, Brett Perkins. 'We're trying to gauge the audience, see how far we can push it. They might be people who wouldn't go to Dalston or Hackney but feel safer seeing something at the Savoy.'
Brasserie Zédel proprietor Jeremy King also hopes to appeal to general audiences but thinks punters have got more savvy. 'People have become much more sophisticated about their evenings out,' he says. 'Up to 30 years ago, even going out for dinner was comparatively rare. It was an activity for the rich. This groundswell for cabaret is coming from a much younger and less affluent demographic.'
Which brings us back to cheapness. Prices for these new venues are pretty high for cabaret shows but not in the context of London entertainment: you can watch a show at the Beaufort, the Matcham or the Elgar for £25; at Zédel, King says, £30 should cover dinner and a show. Whether there's as much food for thought as for the belly, time will tell.