Cabaret highlights from the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Featuring Miss Behave’s Game Show, Voca People, Stop Killing People, Sonics in Duum and Hard Time
This article is from 2014.
From a cappella aliens to renegade game shows, modern cabaret is both weird and wonderful. Kirstyn Smith talks to those who will be setting the Fringe aflame and asks what their chosen artform means to them
‘Liza Minnelli and Bob Fosse? A mixed bill of burlesque, circus skills, singing and comedy, aka variety? Singer droning on about the Weimar Republic? A renegade night of genius at the end of a festival day? This, and not yet this.’ Such is Miss Behave’s definition of a tricksy genre.
Too cool for theatre, too kitsch for comedy and perhaps too sumptuous for dance, cabaret is a difficult one to define. Its inclusion in 2011’s Edinburgh Fringe brochure as a category in its own right for the first time solidified the genre’s mainstream appeal while maintaining its captivating un-pindownability.
Among the 1000-plus shows nestled in this year’s cabaret pages, festival-goers are offered burlesque, musical comedy, aerial circus, acrobatics and everything in between. Ranging from Tomás Ford’s ‘electronic cabaret’ Stop Killing People, to slapstick diva Amy G in Entershamement, pickings are rich.
‘It is performance that is actually enhanced when something goes tits up,’ says Miss Behave. Influenced by everyone from Malcolm Hardee to Dean Martin, and AbFab to Richard Pryor, her new Fringe hour Miss Behave’s Game Show is, by her own admission, perhaps more suited to the comedy category.
‘Everything is cyclical and there has been a lot of genre bleed across singing, variety, cabaret and comedy. Mine is a renegade game show for the austerity generation. It’s a reaction to the slick and earnest high production populating the world of entertainment today. So I’ve made a deliberately lo-fi, silly and audience-centric bag of fun. Stand-up comedy in its purest form – man and mic – has been so televised, diluted and over-saturated that people are looking for something more.’
Despite being married to stand-up Mickey D, Boo Dwyer’s comedic world craves a bit more bite. Hard Time, the latest Titty Bar Ha Ha show, doesn’t shy from comedy, but slathers its smut, fun and high-end filth with a hint of the macabre. ‘It’s Shawshank Redemption meets Prisoner Cell Block H via Johnny Cash, in disco pants saying “fuck” too many times.’
Dwyer’s journey was a roundabout route through satire and one-woman shows before she discovered that her heart belonged to cabaret. ‘I hit 30 and realised that the world was serious enough, and that life was much more fun if I could write songs, dance in my pants and travel the world.’ This escapism is not only beneficial for the performer, Dwyer maintains, but for the audience as well. ‘People need a temporary release from the “real”. Cabaret not only does this, but often holds a light up to situations that may have been dusted under the carpet. Or if you don’t want to travel down that path, it just gets you the hell out of Dodge for an hour or two.’
Like Dorothy’s emergence in the magical land of Oz, cabaret as an escape into another world is a theme that the Voca People jump on and run with. ‘The show tells the story of aliens crash-landing on Earth and in need of musical energy to recharge their spaceship,’ explains their producer Lior Kalfo. ‘All the music is performed a cappella combined with modern human beatbox. It is an outsider’s loving view on the great music on our planet, as performed by aliens.’
An eight-strong outfit, bedecked in dazzling white plus bald caps, the Voca People provide an otherworldly experience. Immersing the audience in incredible harmonies, they run the gamut of popular music, educating themselves in the likes of Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Mozart and Madonna. ‘I think that the set of skills required from a cabaret performer is extraordinary,’ Kalfo continues. ‘In our show we describe them as “out of this world”, not only because the show is about aliens, but also because of the talent required to perform the show: extraordinary singing, dancing, acting and comical skills.’
Alessandro Pietrolini, creator and director of Sonics in Duum describes his main influences as ‘the world of nouveau cirque, aerial acrobatics disciplines, visual art and theatre’. The Italian performing arts troupe are ethereal and eerie, and their new show also delves into the world of otherness. The underworld Pietriolini has created is inhabited by settlers who retreated to the centre of the Earth to seek refuge from the cruelty above. ‘However, they start to feel suffocated in this new underworld that destroys their emotions. That’s why [protagonist] Serafino tries to convince his companions to return.’
Not all cabaret is so deep. Dixey’s new show, Where Gentlemen Are Always Immaculately Undressed offers a look at the world of burlesque irrespective of gender. Featuring a cast of award-winning performers, they are an equal opportunities employer and dedicated to skilled fun. ‘For the most part, cabaret is self-created and therefore is without the usual restraints of the mainstream,’ says Dixey producer Sean Mooney. ‘That makes it a perfect way for people to express themselves. It’s free speech with glitz and glamour.’
And then there’s EastEnd Cabaret, the debauched double act comprising Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria. ‘If your aim is to provoke, entertain and defy genre boundaries, you might well identify as a cabaret performer,’ explains Victor Victoria. ‘Cabaret should be daring and fun. Or strange. Or silly. It is inclusive and undefinable.’
The duo make no bones about getting intimate with their audiences: as well as dark and dirty songs, there is straddling and no small amount of inappropriate touching. ‘We are so isolated in a lot of ways and in our show we encourage our audiences to get to know each other,’ says Byrne. ‘People are open to being pushed out of their comfort zone, which I enjoy. I want them to leave feeling a little turned on.’
While Wild Card Kitty’s The Showgirl Show is deadpan satirical character comedy, her views on the importance of cabaret in today’s society are serious. ‘Cabaret is fast emerging as one of the last stops of free speech. It peels back the veneer of the plastic-coated, photoshopped concept we have of state-sanctioned perfection and mocks the stupidity of it. Cabaret is vital and, frankly, keeps shit real. It developed at a time of political unrest as a way for people to lampoon the “powers that be” and burlesque has been around since Grecian times as a form of parody and mockery. I think they’ve come to the fore again for these same reasons: people are tired of being marginalised and lied to by the government.’
While no doubt socially important, politicising cabaret is not for everyone. ‘I don’t come point-of-view first; I come agenda first,’ insists Miss Behave. ‘I think my aesthetic and my attention to detail will demonstrate a space for people to pop an agenda on it, but I don’t need you guys to come along and listen to “what I think is wrong with the world”. I think the world is going to hell in a handbag, and my work does express that, but I don’t feel the need to even say it.’ From inducing laughter, to acting as a means of escapism, to portraying the world in a different light: cabaret truly is a mixed bag of tricks and perhaps one of the few genres that can honestly boast something for everyone. Its importance, however, cannot be understated.
‘People like labels and boxes and cliques, but while this can be nurturing and supportive, it can also be misleading and unhelpful to the work,’ concludes Miss Behave. ‘What we need to do is re-market “going out”. What would get you, the reader, out of your house and buying a ticket right now? A random show you know nothing about? A famous comedian? Something a trusted mate of yours raved about? Or are you just going to stay at home and watch Game of Thrones? Tricky, innit?’
Miss Behave, Bob & Miss Behave’s Bookshop, Holyrood Road, 0131 226 0000, 3–25 Aug, 9.20pm, £5. Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £2.50.
Tomás Ford, Mash House, Guthrie Street, 0131 226 0000, 1–24 Aug (not 12), 9.40pm, £9–£10. Preview 31 Jul, £6.
Amy G, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 2–25 Aug (not 12, 19), 11pm, £10–£12 (£9–£11). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £6.
Titty Bar Ha Ha, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 2–24 Aug (not 11, 18), 10.45pm, £11–£13 (£9–£11). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £5.
Voca People, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 2–25 Aug (not 12, 19), 6pm, £12.50–£16 (£10.50–£14.50). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £8.
Sonics, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 2–23 Aug (not 12), 4.30pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 30 Jul, 1 Aug, £5.
Dixey, Assembly Roxy, Roxburgh Place, 0131 623 3030, 2–24 Aug (not 11), 10.10pm, £13–£15 (£12–£14). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £7.
EastEnd Cabaret, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 2–25 Aug (not 11), 8pm, £10.50–£11.50 (£9.50–£10.50). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £7.
Wild Card Kitty, The Phoenix, Broughton Street, 0131 557 0234, 31 Jul–24 Aug (not 12), 2.30pm, free.