Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Cabaret Time!

When George Bernard Shaw pronounced that "to kindle art to the whitest heat, there must always be some fanaticism behind it," he had been watching musical hall sketches. This makes me feel better about the post that I shall eventually write that claims Dusty Limits is more important than Shakespeare, and connects me to a tradition of theatre critics - GBS would later become an issue-obsessed playwright but started as a critic - who are fascinated by cabaret's potential.

Despite getting its own section in the Fringe programme only two years ago, cabaret is a well established rival to theatre and comedy in the battle for star ratings during the August bun fight. I am not convinced that the variety bills that are often the foundation of any consideration of cabaret have advanced much since 2010, when Vive Le Cabaret set up in the palatial Ghillie Dhu and celebrated its new found popularity and roots in the vintage fashion scene: it's too easy to see the same acts turning up at different nights, or comedians dominating the bill with extracts from their solo shows.

What the cabaret section has done is demonstrate that acts can stretch their material over an hour, giving room to their persona's development and forging an identity as coherent as any stand ups or, in the best cases, focussing their sketches and songs into a potent theatrical experience. Dusty Limits remains far ahead here, but Jonny Woo, best known for getting more facial expression out of a gorilla mask than most actors get out of their face, and Bourgeois and Maurice prove that the five minute slot is not necessarily the optimum for a cabaret routine.

Bourgeois and Maurice don't make it easy for the critic attempting to analyse them within a socio-political frame-work: calling the show Sugartits and explicitly stating in a recent interview that their songs weren't very political, they try to pretend that their intentions are more towards the party than the party line. Fortunately, Sugartits belies their modesty. While they might lack the concentration of Dusty Limits, they have a sardonic take on both Europe's financial woes and the British desire not to get involved and their smack down of Facebook ("makes me feel shit, sometimes") is nicely posed on the precipice between virtual confidence and the grim meat-hook realities of existence.

Bourgeois' effete, prancing personality revels in ignorance - he tries to understand cabaret by watching some film whose name he forgets, and concludes it is about funny haircuts, an American and Nazis - skewering the lazy acceptance of pre-consumed opinion and London's provincialism with glee. A supposedly improvised number satirises the ubiquity of high street chainstores, and mocks a Britain that is slowly losing regional identity: his banter with Maurice takes swipes at observational comedy and elegantly undercuts cabaret's own obsession with glamour.

The elephant in the room with cabaret is always Weimar. Thanks to its association with anti-Nazi politics in the 1930s, Weimar Cabaret is pretty much the gold standard of the form. Never mind that GBS was elated by catching Yvette Guibert, who sung songs that would not be out of place in the repertoire of cheeky Des O'Connor (the one who wrote Cheap Shite White Wine, not the perma-tanned TV host); mentioning Weimar brings out the serious.

And so Sugartits can take its place in that heritage. It shares the ambiguous sexuality, the disrespect for authority, the barbed comments from a character who goes on to undermine their own authority. The slippery nature of cabaret, in which everything is offered to burlesque parody and the fool speaks truth and idiocy in equal measure, lends it a carnivalesque splendour which might explain why the grander variety shows, like La Clique Royale incorporate circus inspired acrobatics.

There is also an indigenous British tradition of cabaret. This ended up in the variety show, which paraded its rotting corpse on British television until the 1990s. Its bad name comes from the preponderance of shit British comics who milked it and its inevitable association with light entertainment. Stripped of politics and counter-cultural energy, it descended into a vapid endorsement of establishment values and the threatening sexuality was soft-soaped into cheap showgirl vacuity.

It's odd to see East End Cabaret draw on this more mainstream tradition. Despite having a hermaphrodite on the piano, their charming and witty set is relatively mainstream, so long as songs about sex with corpses or sexual jealousy are taken as humour rather than barbed comments on human relationships. After last year, when their Free Fringe show was being touted by the Total Theatre Awards as a display of bravura, their talent appears to be directed towards easier targets.

The chemistry between Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria is evident and their appropriation of popular music, culture and song is sharp: Victor Victoria has a knack for comic parodies of almost familiar tunes and Byrne is a voracious sexual predator. But for a duo who once tried to seduce audiences into bed with the red, the political punch is missing. Victor Victoria is cast more as the cute side-kick, even when stalking Byrne or dismissing a rival's attractiveness.

Notoriously Kinky is a strong show, but panders too much to the audience: it is rarely bracing and even the climax, a medley of the songs they did not have time to include, is more about the wit and skill than the cutting comment. Of course, this assessment is based on insisting that cabaret must have a deeper purpose, the critic's vanity.

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