Shenanigans Cabaret promises to be a “saucy night of delectable debauchery, featuring stunning and scintillating burlesque acts from across the UK”. A neo-burlesque show which features performers of a wide range of shapes and sizes rather than the hourglass silhouettes which tend to grace the stage, Shenanigans could have been a genuinely thoughtful take on the genre. That’s what I thought when I decided to take my girlfriend to see it. What we found was something which failed to be either sexy or entertaining.
I’ll begin with the venue, which had all the atmosphere of a morgue. The place was deathly silent, dark and stripped bare. Had I not been greeted by a woman in burlesque getup at the door, I might have thought I’d stumbled into a Samuel Beckett play rather than what was supposed to be a lively cabaret. The meagre turnout did little to help matters. We were introduced by the show’s compère, Foxi Blue, who proceeded to ram down our throats the show’s core message of body acceptance. Now, I appreciate that Shenanigans was trying something different. A celebration of a wide range of bodies is not something we usually see in the cabaret scene, and in more capable hands it would have really elevated the show. However, if the purpose of Shenanigans was to demonstrate that all body types can be sexy, then the performances should speak for themselves. Instead, Foxi preaches to us between acts about how sexy and entertaining they were, perhaps in the hope of guilt-tripping us into compliance. Yet even then, the show fails its own test. Foxi’s introductory sermon makes a rather sour swipe at burlesque superstar Dita von Teese’s fake breasts; a poor start for a show which is supposed to promote body acceptance.
There were six performances in all. With the exception of Trash Valentine’s energetic bin man-themed routine, I found them generally to be half-hearted. Rather than exuding the confidence which usually carries a cabaret set, especially one without conventional sex appeal as a fallback, the performers came off as uncomfortable, even embarrassed to be there. Perhaps they could read the audience’s thoughts? Even those who put on a gritted smile lacked the stage presence to arouse much more than an occasional half-hearted ‘whoop’ from the stalls. As for the sets themselves, some were confusing, others vaguely unsettling. Some of the worst routines, far from being erotic, conjured up the sorts of feelings one might get watching a drunken elderly relative performing a striptease.
My girlfriend, who was sitting gloomily next to me—perhaps thanking God we hadn’t chosen a front row seat—told me that she’d seen better dancing at Hive, the dingy nightclub across the street. She has seen a lot of drag shows in her time, many of which which followed a similar premise to Shenanigans, though without the preachiness. She told me this was the first show she had been to where the performers had actually needed to encourage the audience to clap and cheer for them.
The lighting was unflattering, shining intensely on the performers’ faces so as to make them appear like ghosts caked in makeup. Rather than adding to the performance it took away from it. The “elaborate and clever costume designs” which Shenanigans boasts about looked like they had come from a charity shop bargain bin. The performances had one thing left to bank on, which was the element of surprise. Sadly, Foxi’s habit of explaining the routines to us before they began ensured that any vestige of suspense was snuffed out before the first whistle. In one case a performer trotted onstage dressed as a monk before breaking out into a heavy metal number. This might have been a fun surprise had our compère not already told us it was going to happen. By the third or fourth performance I had been reduced to a drone-like state. My disbelief settling into apathy, I stared on emptily and wearily, uttering a feeble ‘whoop’ when commanded.
You may think I’ve been a little harsh. For what it’s worth, I went onto the Shenanigans website and found some glowing customer reviews. Some people enjoyed the show, clearly; I cannot say I agree with them. I found the performances to be many things, but sexy was not one of them. For this reason the burlesque fell at the first hurdle. It then continued to stumble over successive hurdles before collapsing in a heap before the finish line. I’m not sure that the show was as long as the purported fifty minutes, though this is not necessarily a complaint; my spirit had been broken regardless of runtime. As we emerged from the venue, shell-shocked and profoundly sexless, I took solace in the knowledge that at least the review would be fun to write.
Shenanigans Cabaret: Burlesque Edition is at The Space @ Niddry St, August 15-20 at 21:10 (50m).
Image used with permission of author, provided to The Student as press material.