04 April 2008

Corsets & Courgettes: The London Burlesque Festival

(photo: Elizabeth Shingleton)

Some very funny stories in the press on April Fools' Day this year, but none of them a match for the sheer hilarity and surrealism I experienced yesterday. I'd been looking forward to attending the launch of this year's annual London Burlesque Festival on 2nd April 2008, but little did I know my day would begin with me confusing a recruitment agent offering me a job in Central Europe for a hotel concierge making a wake-up call (in my defence I was actually still sleeping at the time) and end with me trying to buy drinks with a wad of dodgy £10 notes. And that's to say nothing of having a courgette stuffed down my trousers (don't tell my tailor) shortly after having a fake moustache plastered on my upper lip in front of a rather large group of spectators.

I know. I wouldn't believe it either if it hadn't actually happened.

But, hats off to Chaz Royale for organising a thoroughly entertaining evening (though I feel I should clarify he was not responsible for the morning's phone call). Last night's press launch was an excellently executed and promising start to his 5 day burlesque showcase which sees both British and American talent performing in venues across London.

The main show was split into two halves, with a total of 10 burlesque acts. The whole evening was expertly hosted by Paul L. Martin and the intervals were ably handled by DJs and live bands providing a musical spectrum of rock 'n' roll, rhythm 'n' blues, swing and jazz.

Backed by the Black Beauty theme tune, four of London's Teasemaids kicked off the burlesque with their "Horses for Corsets" routine. This ended with some wonderful nipple tassel twirling by two of the girls - a skill that I'm assured is not as easy as it looks.

Emerald Ace from Nottingham was up next followed by one of the most enjoyable numbers of the night: Scarletine Delight performing "Domestic Bliss". These three ladies started their 1950s housewife themed number to the strains of "Fly Me To The Moon". As the routine picked up pace I noticed myself being winked at more than once. Suddenly I was being beckoned to and before I knew quite what was happening I found myself up on stage. Unexpectedly I was to be given a new perspective on the art of burlesque. Despite an initial bout of stage fright I couldn't help but warm to these ladies who handled me with the utmost care and attention. Despite being an act, there was something rather satisfying in the way in which they pretended to fight over me, taking turns to tickle my fancies.

Stripping me of my porkpie hat, each lady in turn adorned me with a hat of their choice, finishing with a beret. To this was added the aforementioned moustache and I then found myself with hands in my pockets that were not my own. Not really knowing what I was supposed to do, I tried my best to improvise and am told I even managed a hip wiggle.

My part in the routine ended with one of the ladies examining steadily larger vegetables before deciding on a large courgette which she proceeded to force into my trousers until it stuck out in a slightly disturbing fashion.

The whole thing seemed to happen so fast I felt I barely had time to breath, but moustache ripped off and courgette reclaimed I made my way off the stage and ready to enjoy the rest of the routine.

The music suddenly jumped up in tempo and these desperate housewives went into a cleaning frenzy. Everything and everyone was dusted and cleaned at an alarming rate - including my photographer.

Extremely funny, yet intrinsically sexy, this routine summed up what burlesque is all about for me. The high level of audience participation in particular made this performance stand out in entertainment value.

But the best was yet to come. Whilst still coming to terms with my stint as a burlesque performer (or should that be "prop"?), the winner of last year's Tournament Of Tease, Siren Stiletto, was announced.

Dancing to "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", Ms Stiletto showed us how she had beaten the competition. Everything about her routine was pure class, from the confidence, costume and choreography to her excellent timing and tight dancing. Only one word really suffices: wow.

Leaving us on a high, the compère announced an interval and it was time to queue for drinks. Upon paying I discovered what my lady friends had been doing with their hands in my pockets. Slight panic as I pulled out a bundle of fake £10 notes, much to the amusement of the rest of the bar. Worrying I would be unable to pay, I fumbled around and was relieved to find my wallet and cash, albeit in a different pocket from the one it had started the night in.

After meeting one of my new friends who most graciously thanked me for my part in the routine, I discovered that the fake money should have been reclaimed during the act but that my suit's sheer number of pockets had proven confusing to their roaming hands.

Relaxed and drink in hand, it was time for the 6 acts making up the second half of the show.

First up was a routine called "Dirty Laundry" from Double Oh Sassy - a very sexy performer who also proved a great dancer. Hailing from Seattle, Sassy was my favourite of the performers from across the pond. I have to admit I found some of the other American acts a little too akin to straight striptease for my tastes.

London's Bijou Noir on the other hand I found very impressive with an elegant routine paying homage to vintage burlesque complete with appropriate music that included Nina Simone's "I Put A Spell On You". Looking around the crowd it would seem that this lady - resplendent with large feather fans - certainly knew how to put a spell on her audience.

When the entertainment ended, my watch told me we'd been there for over 4 hours, yet the whole evening seemed to pass in a flash. Surely the sign of a good night out.

And so into the Soho night air with a reinforced enthusiasm for Burlesque and a promise to ourselves not to miss next year's festival.

The London Burlesque Festival runs until Sunday 6th April at various venues.

Visit www.londonburlesquefest.com for details.

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