Enter a boogie wonderland in this disco-themed variety show
When Marcia Hines tells you to clap, you clap.
Velvet, the disco-fuelled circus/burlesque cabaret, is your invitation to a party where it’s cool to participate. There’s no room for being self-conscious about clapping along or moving to the beat in your seat when the tunes are classic and camp, beautiful people are performing amazing tricks with their bodies, and it’s really, really hard not to smile a big, face-cracking smile.
We meet a wide-eyed young man (Tom Oliver): shirt tucked in, hair neatly combed, wearing a tie. He’s just arrived in the big city, a ‘Boogie Wonderland’ full of self-possessed sexy citizens. A contortionist porter with a cheeky grin (Mirko Köckenberger) manages his bags; a glamorous aerialist (Emma Goh) pushes past him, luxuriating in the music. There’s an irresistible hula boy (Craig Reed) and a dark stranger with a studded leather jacket (Stephen Williams) who – literally – flies through the air above us all.
When the boy meets his fairy godmother, his diva guide in this new world of self-discovery, everything clicks into place. It’s Marcia Hines in all her full-throated, buttery-voiced glory. A benevolent, larger than life, sequin-clad figure, she sings the house down at least four times and is a source of strength and comfort for our young man.
Like most circus cabarets, Velvet consists of a series of numbers and routines held together by some kind of storyline. Shows in this genre live and die on the strength of that narrative: a variety show of disconnected acts will never engage an audience in quite the same way as one that constructs something of a journey for its audience. Without a narrative, it can feel like people are swinging from ropes in the air for no apparent reason, with no relationship to the music or the acts that came before.
But Velvet is created and directed by Craig Ilott, who knows well how to marry story and spectacle (he’s directed productions of rock musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and American Idiot) – and he knows exactly what he’s doing here. We follow Oliver’s character into his own liberation. Backed by indefatigable singers and dancers (Rechelle Mansour and Kaylah Attard, who bring Lucas Newland’s playful and sexy choreography to the fore), the diva, the boy, and the cast of performers construct something of a coming-of-age fantasy. From ‘Le Freak’ to ‘It’s Raining Men’ and ‘Turn the Beat Around’, the shirt comes untucked, the audience claps longer and louder, and people start dancing in their seats. It’s a joyful call for being yourself, and a reminder to live in the moment, enjoy the music – and dance..
Part of the reason why the show is so successful, apart from the astonishingly casual and endlessly charming approach each cast member brings to their acts of technical ability and bodily magic, is that there’s a hint of real meaning under all the fun and disco. The young man is discovering his sexuality and true self, and it’s clear that it’s queer. The arrangement of the acts – from innocence, to intense sexuality, to a moment of breakdown (a balladic, ukulele take on ‘Staying Alive’) – could be paralleled with the queer sexual freedom of the late 70s, the height of disco, before the devastation of the AIDS crisis, though there’s no need to read that deeply into it.
In fact, Velvet is the perfect show for the stressed or over-worked (and isn’t that all of us?). Matthew Marshall’s lights feel like a rock show; James Browne’s set and costumes place us a in a retro club where everyone is welcome. The rhythm will indeed get you – and at the end of the show, when DJ and musical director Joe Accaria invites the audience to get on their feet and dance, there won’t be many who can resist.