How cabaret seduced London

'Bourgeois & Maurice Can't Dance' at Sadler's Wells, December 2010 'Bourgeois & Maurice Can't Dance' at Sadler's Wells, December 2010 - Darrell Berry
Posted: Tue Jan 18 2011

Thanks to La Clique and La Soirée, the cabaret scene in London has never been bigger. But how did we get here?

Over the past year, you might have gawped at a food fight on 'The X Factor' or an arrival-lounge rendition of 'The Passenger' in a mobile phone ad. Perhaps you witnessed avant-garde drag queens marauding around Selfridges, scrambled to nab a ticket for the hottest title at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival or queued for standing-room-only musical character comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe. Or maybe you got wind of a promenade show at the National Portrait Gallery, or were bowled over by the tongue-twisting trannies hosting Lovebox and dishing out pop-up meals at Glasto? Or…

Let's just say cabaret has reached places you wouldn't expect to find it. Meanwhile, West End crowds flock to grand-scale shows like the Olivier Award-winning La Clique and La Soirée, while old-school venues from Sadler's Wells to the Royal Festival Hall snap up underground talent. Cabaret in 2011 is booming.

So what is 'cabaret', anyway?
There's no simple answer, and that's a lot of work we're claiming for a scene many people have barely heard of. Fusing and confusing elements from practically every field of live performance - music, dance, theatre, comedy, magic, striptease and more - cabaret has meant different things in different times and places, from sensuous Parisian glamour to scabrous Weimar satire, and from polished Manhattan supper clubs to our own knockabout music-hall tradition.

Even so, a few key elements stand out. Cabaret should be both serious and fun, engaging with and subverting social and political conventions in ways that raise laughs, wolf-whistles, even a gasp or two. A cabaret show can offer a mix of forms, often as a compered sequence of shorter turns. It uses direct address and relies on a sustained collaboration between those on and off stage; this is lubricated by another defining characteristic: plentiful booze, along with informal seating arrangements and low ticket prices. Cabaret promises accessibility and transgression.

What's out there?
Time Out London has been championing the latest crop of this kind of work for some time now, starting in 2006 with the magazine's Social Club section, which listed a range of offbeat nocturnal activities. In 2009, as the scene went stellar, we realised there was more than enough performance work to warrant a dedicated Cabaret section. (This harks back to our Cabaret, Comedy & Variety section that ran from 1983 until the early '90s, when the cabaret bit yielded to the alternative comedy explosion.)

The beauty of the current London scene is its variety - in fact, it's more a collection of overlapping scenes, each with its own roots. Burlesque, which engages with glamour and gender through dance or clowning routines that culminate in nudity, largely grew out of the recent trend for all things retro. Performers who sing comic songs in character often come from a drama-school background. And many of the stars of what could be called 'post-drag' - artists whose outré outfits and routines defy both male and female norms - emerged from the gay clubbing, party and performance scenes. Circus and skills-based acts are booming, and there's a sub-scene of live art and academic practice that overlaps with cabaret too.

The closest thing to a standard format is the variety show, with a compère presenting a range of turns. 'You get more bang for your buck,' suggests Scottee, who hosts Eat Your Heart Out (EYHO). 'If you don't like what's on, you don't have to watch it. You can go out for a fag, come back and there'll be something else that you probably will like.' Newbie variety successes have included the Blue Stocking Society, a showcase for women performers, and the David Lynch-themed Double R Club.

Perhaps because collaboration is intrinsic to its practice, cabaret is continually evolving. 'It's a playground for new forms,' says Dickie Beau, veteran of several recent full-length shows - Duckie's 'Readers Wifes Fan Club', EYHO's 'Violence' and his own 'Retroflection' - that meld cabaret and theatre with groundbreaking results. Work with moving images is also growing: several of our cover stars are applying cabaret's DIY ethos to film, TV, web and video projects.

Why now?
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that cabaret is blossoming as other aspects of society are being left to rot; it's a form that thrives by turning economic and political crap into artistic fertiliser. These artists also have a head start when it comes to marginalisation and shoestring budgets: 'Everyone's in it out of love,' notes Jonny Woo. 'We should be proud that it's self-created. No one's come along and given us spaces.' Today's performers also have practical benefits unavailable to their forebears - not least the miracle of social networking, which allows for free targeted publicity and the fostering of a community.

And that might be the most appealing thing about cabaret for its ever-growing audience. Some shows directly reflect our new political landscape, others offer glamorous or playful escapism, most are somewhere in between. Whatever the content, cabaret offers an experience that is both artistic and social, that requires and rewards engagement, and sends you home with change in your pocket and a smile on your face. That's not a bad proposition these days. Don't expect the show to end any time soon.