BURLESQUE LEGENDS | MISS POLLY RAE
“It takes YEARS to learn this stuff.” she says wafting a hand across the masterpiece of her visage. I believe her. In fact she herself spent years learning “I was a beauty therapist.” The eyeleashes sweep through the air around her face. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, growing up, and I was training to become a makeup artist for TV and film. Because the Special Effects make up course stopped running at my college I was a bit stuck so I went and did the advanced beauty therapy course”
At 22 Miss Polly moved to London and, with the help of (unlikely as it may seem) a Bollywood Boy, started training in dance and singing, got some auditions and “ … then just randomly one day I was at Danceworks and I saw an advert for a Burlesque class …which looked … interesting. I went for an hour for free. And this teacher … she shimmied her thing and she totally blew my mind. I started to research the burlesque and cabaret world to see what wasn’t there. And there were no burlesque troupes, so I decided to create my own, with the gimmick being that I sing. I’d been to the Soho Revue Bar which was then Too Too Much and seen Holly Penfield there doing some kind of number from Chicago with two male dancers and I knew that’s what I wanted to do and this was where I want to be.” The perfect manicure tucks a stray titian curl behind a shell-like ear and the ravens sweep their wings across her cheeks.
“The Hurly Burly Girlies were born at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in 2006 and I was the star.” She exudes a little sparkleburst. “At first it was very twee – we really just pranced around in lingerie - until I really understood what burlesque was and we started to develop a style”. That style was hugely popular with the audiences at Soho Revue Bar and Volupte and garnered them a manager, a booker, a short run at Leicester Sq Theatre and an introduction to William Baker, hot from directing Kylie into that pair of gold hotpants. “In 2010 we were wondering how to take The Hurly Burly Show to the next level … and it turned out our manager knew William Baker, so we cornered him in Bar Italia. I had my little laptop to show him some stuff that we did and I said I wanted it to become the Cirque Du Soleil of Burlesque Shows. And he loved it ! He brought his entire team over and we opened at Leicester Sq Theatre which is a 400 seater all on one level and an intimate space so it worked really well.” But success meant that the show went to The Garrick (800 seats on two levels) “That show was a huge success” says Polly. “To be able to put burlesque on that level to the masses was an incredible thing to do but if we got the chance to do it again we would rethink the venue.” The essence of Burlesque, according to Miss Polly is getting up close and personal with the audience. “The way I have developed my performance now … I get to touch my audience, I get to sit on their knees … I get to see the whites of their eyes and I am very much happier as a performer as a result. I have to connect with everybody … Burlesque gives a sense that we’re all in it together whereas on a big West End Stage, amazing as it is, there is a disconnect …”
“And” chimes in Laura Corcoran who is also one of the Wonders of the Wonderground with the dark and delicious Hotel Black Cat, “where there is less connection, it becomes voyeurism”.
Polly nods and the lashes create a tiny fragrant breeze across her champagne flute
“Burlesque performing is about connecting with your audience one on one … provoking a reaction in an individual … giving them a little moment which everyone else gets to enjoy too”
Does it make a qualitative difference, I wonder to the two, having a female director rather than a male suggesting that this might be the optimal moment in a scene to whip your baps out or repositioning your bare ass for a better view ?
“I guess it depends on the person” muses Miss Polly. “Although when we are saying guys … in burlesque we are really talking about gay guys”
Laura nods. “The only straight guys in cabaret are the producers … ”
Is this, I offer, because burlesque is about having fun and playing with sex, and for a straight man sex is far, far too important to play around with ?
The carmine cupids bow purses and the twin arches of her brows move together as if in private consultation. Miss Polly Rae nods thoughtfully. “If it was straight men directing it would probably just be a quick strip show … which is why they are there down in Soho doing those shows and we are doing our shows at the Wonderground”
“We do have to go through a process of embracing our sexuality … and it is kind of other” says Laura, a woman whose onstage career revels in exploring and showcasing ‘other’. It is still to a certain extent a man’s world … much of what we see of women and sex onscreen and onstage is seen through a male gaze. So when we are taking charge we have to go through a process of thinking … yeah but what am I into ?”
As it turns out, what Miss Polly Rae is into – over the summer and for your enjoyment – is something she calls “an orgy of entertainment”. Apropos of orgies, a question occurs to me …
“Do you feel like part of the sex industry?” I ask, hoping I don’t offend. It does not appear that I do.
“Somewhat.” says Miss Polly, carefully. “ We are experimenting with sex and sexual ideas … so … to a certain degree, yes.” She is now certain “Why not ?”
It is all, we agree, part of a continuum. As is burlesque’s relationship with new circus. Everything is crossfertilising with everything else, it seems, in what might be termed “an orgy of entertauinment”.
“Back in the day,” says Miss Polly, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club or Volupte you’d see maybe ten stripteasers. You don’t see that any more because the bar has been raised because people are getting bored. At The Hippodrome on a Saturday night – Soho Burlesque Club - we only have four burlesque acts. Then we have Laura doing her spots as Miss Frisky, we have circus entertainers, comedians and singers. And the Wonderground show ? Between The Sheets ?
“We are there having fun, celebrating sexuality, celebrating sensuality - male, female, gay, straight and anything and everything inbetween. Having said which “there is a spot for a Boylesque duet at start of show and one of the guys pitched a gender transition vibe” says Laura. “He starts off as a guy, strips off and then drags up. We had a real conversation about that about whether this is this show and we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t. There are so many amazing queer cabaret shows out there, and this is not one of them. This is a world of sex and sexual play, not gender play”
This is a world unburdened by Political Message and unrepressed by Political Correctness. But its sexiness with smarts and its titillation has talent.
They speak with creative pride of Hugo Desmarais. An arielist. “He is an extraordinarily skilled circus performer …” says Laura, “who is a natural filth monkey. Which is why he is in this showcase”. Polly herself – to the unknowing eye a living porcelain doll with a sweet girl’s giggle and the kind of charming manners that are currently enchanting our maitre’d – will be singing her newest song which was written with the help of the lovely Laura, two Aperol Spritzs and the music of Michael Roulston. It examines the subject of queefing. With sound effects.
“ The only thing that comes close to a political statement is one of the final acts in the show where two male dancers do a love duet.” says Miss Polly. “We felt had to address that … because it is an important thing in terms of sex and for once we wanted to have two men onstage being romantic but not comic - it is combination of real masculinity, strength and love”. She swallows the last of her champagne. And licks the carmine Cupid’s bow. “And it is sexy as hell”