Edinburgh Fringe 2011 cabaret report

Posted: Wed Aug 24 2011

Cabaret went legit in 2011 with its own section in the Fringe programme. Time Out reports on a fest of kisses, Lycra and Celine Dion (sort of)

Was 2011 year zero for cabaret at the Edinburgh Fringe? Well, no - there have always been cabaret shows at the fest - but there were moments you'd have been excused for thinking so. This was the first year that the form had its own section in the official Fringe programme and more than 70 shows listed themselves as cabaret; plenty more that could have done so remained scattered throughout the other sections. (The terrific Phil Kay joined the cabaret party, for instance, while Frisky & Mannish stayed in comedy and Camille O'Sullivan in music.)

The standard of work was high, often exceptional, and most acts can regularly be seen in London. But, more than that, there was a buzz that came both from increased mainstream attention and a feeling that the scene is revving up a gear.

In six days at the Fringe, I caught about 30 shows - not enough time even to see all the work I knew I wanted to, let alone pick up on all the recommendations that crop up once you've arrived. There were some no-brainers: veterans whose shows were unlikely to disappoint. Camille O'Sullivan's latest set, 'Feel', was indeed a stand-out, offering her trademark combination of kindergaten charisma and apocalyptic powerhouse vocals. Sarah-Louise Young delivered her third polished compendium of comic character chanteuses under the 'Cabaret Whore' banner while also joining the line-up of blue-chip veterans Fascinating AÔda.

Frisky & Mannish (whose show I saw in a London preview) offered another slice of pop pastiche, proving as accomplished as ever even if the format is perhaps too familiar by now. And, on a flying visit to the International Festival, Meow Meow offered intriguing and intimate insights into some works in progress, including a show themed around on-stage kissing and dying.

There were also impressive breakthrough solo showcases from regular performers on the London scene. Gateau Chocolat proved that his heart is as big as his voice with a set exploring the role of performance in his life, wrapped in acres of Lycra and a roomful of warm, fuzzy feelings. EastEnd Cabaret demonstrated that their nimbly transgressive songs and hilariously spiky co-dependence easily filled an hour. Mash-up double-act Pistol & Jack's fine-tuned show balanced big laughs, deft character work and impressive musicality too.

Others built on past successes. In their second year at Edinburgh, Eat Your Heart Out, led by Scottee, were on fantastic form, offering refreshingly abrasive work that demanded collaboration - or confrontation - with the audience while remaining compelling and funny. Bryony Kimmings's restlessly imaginative '7 Day Drunk' did for the relationship between alcohol and creativity what last year's 'Sex Idiot' did for shagging and sociability.

Tricity Vogue revisited her Blue Lady persona for another hour in which smart audience participation and charm overcame the challenges of performing without speaking. And in 'Wilfredo °Erecto!', the scuzzy, frothing yet endearing would-be Spanish love god was at the peak of his powers. Fringe stalwart Dusty Limits hit town after I'd left with new show 'Darkling'.

Piff the Magic Dragon was on characteristically fine, deadpan form, benefiting from his turn on ITV's 'Fool Me'; the discontents of 'Britain's Got Talent', meanwhile, were part of the patter of latter-day gentleman juggler Mat Ricardo, whose show combined excellent skills work with musings on the itinerant performer's life. Elsewhere, Mr B's sterling chap-hop routine seemed a little stretched over an hour; Moonfish Rhumba's show felt happily bonkers but half-baked; and the anthemic rock mash-ups of Rayguns Look Real Enough struggled to convince as more than the sum of their parts.

One of the American scene's biggest music crossover names, Amanda Palmer, was in town with her brilliant conjoined-twin act, Evelyn Evelyn, in which she and Jason Webley fuse melancholy wit, catchy tunes and on-stage antics. The Twittersphere was also abuzz with her pop-up 'ninja gigs'.

And, in a year when international performers were generally thin on the ground, there was a strong Australian contingent. The nation's booming cabaret scene seems, at least from the work at the Fringe, to have a house style in which a monologue based on emotional experience is punctuated by songs. This can often result in an over-scripted feel but there were stand-outs: British-born Sophie Walsh-Harrington's 'Damsel in Shining Armour' was a triumphant mix of vulnerability and knowingness, shifting registers, exuding mischievous relish and even making Celine Dion resonant; and 'The Spaces Between', from musical duo The Jane Austen Argument, demonstrated warm chemistry as well as songwriting finesse.

For a wider perspective on cabaret's shifting fortunes, two moments popped. One was the Cabaret V2.0 event at Fringe Central, at which a wide-ranging debate from panellists such as Palmer, Frisky & Mannish, Des O'Connor and myself flowed into discussion with a talented, engaged and knowledgeable audience, largely from the scene. The feeling was of excitement and ambition along with integrity and genuine community support.

The other moment came during Radio 1's 'Fun and Filth Cabaret', a live show broadcast over four nights offering a mainstream audience a gateway to cabaret. The sight of Gateau Chocolat getting Joey from 'The Only Way Is Essex' all flustered suggested that, when worlds collide, the underdog can come out on top…