London's new variety scene

Visceral, subversive and, above all, entertaining: a new generation of performers are proving that, once again, London's nightlife is the best in the world. Time Out raises the curtain on a twilight world of fishnets, accordions and an escapologist getting stitched inside a cow

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    Creatures of the night

    Time Out used to have a section called Variety, Comedy & Cabaret. Then, in the early ’90s, when London’s alternative-comedy circuit asserted itself as the best in the world, variety got sidelined, its acts left in the wilderness. Now, variety acts and colourful clubland characters are back. The antithesis of samey-same superclubs, the new breed have been seeking inspiration from the capital around them for parties that have caused the city’s nightlife to build to boiling point in the past year. This, then, is the new alternative scene. Gender-bending, genre-crossing, rule-breaking – and all very welcoming. Here’s our guide to the best of London’s late-night performers…

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    Pustra (right) and Vile-een

    Sideshow vaudeville

    What is it?

    How to explain Pustra/Vile-een’s Vaudeville (to give this duo their full name)? Think silent-movie slapstick meets travelling sideshow act.

    In their own words

    ‘We are vaudeville with a modern twist. Pustra/Vile-een’s Vaudeville both shocks and fascinates, fusing American-style vaudeville, silent films of yesteryear and “cartoonesque” slapstick. Pop in a splash of circus sideshow, lashings of singing, a spritz of dancing, a snifter of burlesque and a large dollop of trashy, demented delights – with puppets. Shake it altogether and what do you get? Oh, lovely… Gin slings…’

    Where to see it

    Pustra/Vile-een’s Vaudeville, Cheese ’n’ Crackers, Battersea Barge, SW8 (www.myspace.com/pustravileeen ) Vauxhall tube/rail. August 2. The Magic Lantern Club , Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, E2 (www.workersplaytime.net ) Bethnal Green tube. August 3.

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    Dusty Limits

    The new Weimar

    What is it?

    Initiated by leading performer Dusty Limits, dark, caustic and edgy Weimar-style cabaret is being hauled out of pre-Hitler Germany and thrust into London’s seedier performance spaces.

    In their own words

    Dusty Limits: ‘The term “Weimar” refers strictly to the Republic that operated in Germany between the wars. Under the old regime, the Kaiser censored everything. With the Republic, censorship ended, so Germany became the most liberal place in the Western world. Cabaret, or Kabarett in German, thrived. It became the haunt of artists and outsiders: queers, Jews, poets. Some were satirical and intellectual but a lot of nights became bawdy drinking and cocaine dens. It was an underground world, frequented by some of the most important artists of the period, like Wedekind, Brecht, Weill, Hollander, Tucholsky. When the Nazis took control, they shut the cabarets down because they didn’t like being satirised. A lot of artists fled the country or ended up in concentration camps. ‘I wouldn’t say I was trying to revive Weimar cabaret but I certainly admire that spirit and I am constantly trying to shoehorn Kurt Weill numbers into defenceless variety shows! The Weimar sensibility appeals to my twisted personality. It’s a love of honesty – of genuine, truthful feeling over sentiment – coupled with a rather perverse love of the wry, whimsical, satirical and shocking. ‘There are many reasons why the Weimar notion is finding new currency. It’s glib to compare one’s own time with the rise to power of the Nazis but I think that after years of Labour abuses of power – the most obvious being the Iraq war but the slow erosion of civil liberties and freedom of speech is another – we’re more politicised than we have been for a while and this means we are looking for voices that speak the truth. And we’ve come to love anyone who speaks in a satirical voice for the simple reason that Tony Blair spoke so… very… earnestly. And, of course, he was speaking absolute bullshit the whole time.‘Weimar is about more than being gorgeous and impossibly thin. There was a great kabarettist called Marya Delvard and I think I managed, unconsciously, to model myself on her. She was cadaverous in appearance and scared her audiences half to death. Of course I end up spoiling it by being far too friendly, like a lanky, skeletal puppy dog. But I’m trying. Usually if I sing “I Hope (Your Children Die Of Cancer)” it helps.‘The kabaretts were artistic hothouses and my own night is aiming to achieve something similar; it’s as much a salon as a performance night. We have a slot called Mike Wide Open, which is a chance for Kleinkunst artists to try stuff out. Kleinkunst means “small art”. It’s a useful umbrella term for small-scale, cabaret-type performance. Every week is something totally spontaneous, something that could only have happened at that moment. Of course we are nowhere near the true divine decadence of the Weimar kabaretts; one performer in Berlin was famous for smoking a cigar with her pussy, which is something I’ve yet to see. And the smoking ban’s probably spoiled any chance of that happening.‘The cabaret scene was almost non-existent when I arrived here from Brisbane in 1999. Now it’s thriving, so much so that we can have multiple Weimar-esque performers doing their thing here. I’m always disappointed if someone just does retro-Weimar: bowler hat, fishnets, songs by Hollander. It’s not that I don’t love that material – I do. But the spirit of Weimar has to be engaged with the present, not just an evocation of the past, no matter how sexy it was. This is why I sing Portishead and original songs as well as those from the ’20s. We need to resist turning it into a nostalgia trip. We are still very complacent. The Weimar artists had the rising tide of fascism to kick against. We have rising sea levels. I just got back from New York where I was part of a show called ‘Weimar New York’. It’s existence made me realise that there is a Zeitgeist, and I’m finally in tune with it.’

    Where to see it

    Dusty Limits hosts Kabarett, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, SE11) Vauxhall tube. September 14.

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    Jonathan Goodwin

    Extreme magic

    What is it?

    Guillotines, near-lethal stage mistakes and nipple-based escapology: the Great Suprendo would probably not approve.

    In their own words

    Jonathan Goodwin ‘I am an extreme escapologist. Basically, I get restrained in various situations and I have to escape before something bad happens. I have been hanged, buried alive, locked in a box with 50,000 bees and sewn inside a dead cow among other things. I occasionally get people asking me if what I do is derived from masochism or bondage but, for me, there really is nothing sordid or sexual in what I do. The closer comparison would be extreme sports like basejumping.‘It is impossible to know what will happen during one of my shows. Everything that happens is real, and I genuinely don’t know whether I will escape or not. At the moment, my favourite stunts are an escape from my own nipple, and my version of Harry Houdini’s water-torture cell, in which I am hanging upside-down, restrained d with my head locked in a box of water. I constantly change my act, though, as I quickly get good at the escape and then it’s less exciting for me; I like to stay on my toes.‘Things constantly go wrong; it’s a bit of a mainstay of my act. It’s macabre, but the audiences tend to like it more when I don’t escape. I nearly drowned on stage once and the audience gave me a standing ovation! The last thing that went wrong was a badly burnt foot during my “hotpants” escape at the Download festival. I have a page on my site dedicated to my injuries.‘There is definitely a variety revival in London, which is great, because for a long time variety was about as cool as Dave Lee Travis. I think it has to do with the fact that the quality of TV has gone downhill; people are going out for their entertainment. There are loads of performers on the scene that I really rate. My two hot tips are Pete Firman, who is a hilarious comedy magician, and Matt Henham, the most incredible juggler I’ve seen; it’s like he has power over gravity!’

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    Christian Lee

    Christian Lee ‘For me, magic is about not taking it too seriously; keeping it fun and avoiding dusty flowers and hankies. My show is very comedic, very Tommy Cooper. My tag is, “If it’s not funny, it’s the magic part.” My tricks include levitation; I levitate quite often. I make a bowling ball appear by drawing a picture of a bowling ball on a notepad and squeezing it out. It drops on the floor which tends to wake the audience up. I pull an eight-foot pole out of my trousers – it’s my magic wand! That’s my new trick. I used to levitate a lit cigarette from my mouth to the floor through a hoop and then back up again, but I don’t think I can any more, what with the smoking ban.’

    What to see

    Jonathan Goodwin at The End of the World, Clerkenwell Theatre, 24 Exmouth Market, EC1R (www.myspace.com/jonathanescapes) Farringdon tube/rail. Fridays in August from this week. Christian Lee at the Heathcote Arms, 344 Grove Green Rd, E11 (020 8988 0011) Leytonstone tube. September 8. Magic Night, Soho Revue Bar, 11 Walkers Court, W1F (www.myspace.com/mrchristianlee) Oxford Circus tube. October 5

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    Front, left to right: Isa GT, Becky, Lokicia, Karley. Middle, left to right: Naz, Tara (standing), Julie. Back, left to right: Lolo, Maria, Marizla (holding disco ball)

    Girlcore

    What is it?

    Since last summer, this colourful all-girl collective have been combining their musical, fashion and creative industry talents and been putting on events and parties in east London.

    In their own words

    Lolo Chambovet ‘In so many cases, girls’ first instinct isn’t to be nice to other girls – it’s to be a bit bitchy – but we are all from different backgrounds and different countries and know how important it is to have a nice group of girlfriends. Girlcore quickly grew into a mailing list and a newsletter for the growing number of friends who wanted to be involved. ‘In February we started our night at Catch on the last Thursday of every month and it has been a success… It’s all a bit last-minute because we are so busy, but we meet on the first Wednesday of each month to decide a theme. Recently we had a music festival parody night called Girlcrasher with a nu-rave tent full of glowsticks; in March we had Dragcore, where girls dressed as boys, and boys could come if they were dressed as girls. ‘On the night, we bring props and clothes for everyone to dress up in, and there is complete and total mayhem. Our aim is to make people feel free and have fun. Everything is possible in Girlcore. You can marry a pregnant gay man, dress up as a builder or get covered in mud… I think some people think we are all completely mental and the silliness of it all sometimes scares people, but it’s about succumbing and being free.’

    What to see

    Girlcore, Catch, 22 Kingsland Rd, E2 (www.myspace.com/girlcorerules) Old St tube/rail. Aug 30

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    Bourgeois (right) and Maurice

    Character cabaret

    What is it?

    A freakily funny wave of bizarre characters satirising modern London, as epitomised by the likes of Georgeois Bourgeois and Liv Maurice.

    In their own words

    Liv Maurice ‘Cabaret has always been about reflecting and commenting on what is happening at that particular moment in time, in terms of culture and politics and music. So it just seems logical that we should be discussing the world as we see it. We also take elements of vintage, traditional cabaret. Our subjects are modern and contemporary but when you strip us down we’re still a colourful voice and some tinkling ivories.’
    Georgeois Bourgeois
    ‘I don’t think it ever really crossed our minds to do it in any other way than this; we wanted to bring in issues that we felt are relevant now, and do it in a way that we could relate to. We sing about MySpace and nu-rave and Topshop because that’s a culture that we’re part of, and the performance style lets us take the piss out of pop culture a bit, without actually seeming too removed from it. Personally I think that if we had just tried to recreate a vintage genre it would have been false. There’s a lot to say about what’s happening culturally and politically in this country right now, so why not do it in a current style?’ Liv Maurice ‘It felt very natural for us to adopt characters. It creates a sort of critical platform, as well as a shield, to comment from. We hoped that heightened, grotesque characters would be entertaining for an audience, as good cabaret essentially should be. Performers such as Chris Green (Ida Barr & Tina C), the Tiger Lillies and Kiki & Herb are also brilliant at this.’ Georgeois Bourgeois ‘And there are people like Scottee [formerly part of YrMumYaDad, now running Foreign] and Jodie Harsh who are a kind of mix of character cabaret and club performance… which I love. I do think this city has something good going on at the moment – there’s a sense of energy and creativity – the whole “club kid” resurgence is a kind of cabaret in itself; it’s really performative. In terms of clubbing, Boombox is in a league of its own; I don’t think that I could get bored of it. Trailer Trash is great, too. The east really does have the edge at the moment. There’s a lot of random parties and warehouses and bars that I probably will never be able to find twice. People are enjoying being works of art in themselves. Fashion and music and performance are sort of merging into some kind of hybrid anti-high street, anti-mass production, pro-imagination night-time creature. It’s brilliant.’

    What to see

    Bourgeois & Maurice, CellarDoor, Zero Aldwych, WC2R (www.myspace.com/bourgeoisandmaurice) Covent Garden tube. August 6

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    Ryan Styles, Russella and Lisa Lee

    Alternative drag

    What is it?

    Surreal performance meets boys dressed in girls’ clothes at Bistrotheque’s forward-thinking cabaret space. Stand well clear.

    In their own words

    Ryan Styles ‘Things do go wrong in my shows; the trick is to not let the audience realise it. I work a lot with giant balloons and that’s a timebomb waiting to happen. I think it’s fair to let people draw their own conclusions from a performance. Any form of reaction, positive or negative, is good. Bistrotheque’s cabaret space is in constant use. It’s really paved the way for a re-approach to drag performance and I think that London was ready for a change. Alt-drag has become a means to express yourself more openly and is more approachable for an audience. It’s also more fun for the likes of me, that’s why I do it.’
    Russella
    ‘Drag in London is more all-inclusive than it ever has been. We perform in theatres, cabaret lounges and working-men’s clubs, so it’s more respected among the general population. We want everyone to come and have fun times with us, except the ones that want to pull at our wigs and taunt us with make-up remover. Who do I admire? My mummy Jonny Woo is the best drag queen in the world, ever! It’s not often you get to work alongside your idol. My sister Ryan Styles does strange things with balloons but I can’t fault her flawless make-up and high-finish. Le Gateau Chocolate is beautiful with the voice of a fallen angel; I’d like her to be my surrogate aunt alongside Ma Butcher and DJ Aunty Joan Sizzle. Then of course there is show-stealer Spanky.’ Lisa Lee ‘I am a core member of Bistrotheque’s performance collective led by Jonny Woo, and I develop and programme the Cabaret Space at Bistrotheque with [owner] Pablo. There is no typical UnderConstruction show. Every show is unique and created by some of the most prominent and fresh artists in London. UnderConstruction is a platform for work under construction. It’s a season of new pieces in development. ‘We have fabulous shows running on Friday and Saturday nights like Jonny Woo’s ‘Night of A Thousand Jay Astons’, The LipSinkers, ‘Campo Cruza’ and ‘Stark Dallas Naked’ which are really successful and have been picked up by Edinburgh Festival, Dublin Festival and now Soho Theatre. The first UnderConstruction season was a huge success with everyone turning out fabulous shows that included film, opera, live art, musical theatre, spoken-word, song and lots of drag.’

    What to see

    LipSinkers, Bistrotheque, 23-27 Wadeson St, E2 (www.bistrotheque.com) Bethnal Green tube. Fridays and Saturdays in August. UnderConstruction, Bistrotheque from Sept 11.Russella in ‘Princess Die: Through the Eyes of a Queen’, Etcetera Theatre, 265 Camden High St, NW1 (www.myspace.com/fabulousrussella) Camden Town tube. August 7.

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