What lies behind the tassels? Much more than a pair of twirling titties. Subtitled ‘stories, song and tease,’ Burlexe combines dramatic monologues and burlesque numbers in a collage of true stories taken from the biographies of real exotic dancers. Its all-female cast of actresses and burlesquers present a moving tribute to the stubborn independence and uncompromising ambition of the women who choose stripping as a medium for self-expression.
The stories are the stars of the show. Consisting of self-contained monologue segments, they belong to a range of US- and UK-based performers ranging from legends like Josephine Baker and Tempest Storm to modern-day beginners. Bump-and-grinding enthusiasts will find ample clues in famous anecdotes and quotes, but that aside, all the ladies remain nameless. As such, their stories could have happened to anyone, which gives their adversities and triumphs a life of their own, dissociated from their celebrity status.
It’s fascinating to watch their adventurous lives unfold within the concentrated poignancy of the dramatic monologue. The funnier segments border on stand-up comedy, as in a Hispanic dancer’s broken-English account of how she learned to avoid clubs with TV sets, or a young girl’s search for the five-minute job with maximum profit and minimum effort. Others bristle with tragic pathos, like one woman (busty legend Chesty Morgan) taking up striptease to support her children after the brutal murder of her husband, or the graphic tale of another (Tura Satana) being gang-raped at ten and vowing not to depend on anyone for protection when her attackers bribed their way out of jail.
The core cast consists of five actresses. Chloe Ewart displays a remarkable range, liberally imprinting her parts (including the aforementioned Morgan and Satana segments) with a striking determination, even if her myriad accents prove greatly uneven. Comedian Dympna Messenger exudes instant charisma, while pop singer Javine Hylton, in addition to belting out contagious R&B-diva renditions of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, also contributes two monologues, one of them a comic jewel summarising an American burlesquer’s life as she tries to buy insurance over the phone.
In one of many nods to the language of variety shows, British burlesque pioneer Jo ‘Goodtime Mama Jojo’ King addresses the audience between acts, effectively compèring the evening. Rounding up the dramatic ensemble, Kiki Kaboom boasts compelling acting that brims with panache and conviction, much like her inventive and alluring burlesque routines – which are sadly absent from the programme.
But that omission does not prevent Burlexe from having a stellar roster of bump-and-grinders. Supervised by the good-time mama herself (also performing on the final date), every show sees a different selection of guest starlets, including comic firebrand Fancy Chance, Secrets in Lace spokesmodel Dinah Might, controversial provocateur Crimson Skye and tattooed bombshell Luna Rosa. Humour is ripe, as demonstrated by Ginger Blush’s massively cheered construction worker number, where the zesty redhead resorts to pliers to strip off her heavy gloves. Tallulah Tempest sashays about in a blue candy girl outfit teasing spectators with all sorts of treats from her neck-strap tray to the tune of New Young Pony Club’s Ice Cream, climaxing with a deft reveal as hilarious as it is gooey.
Expect tribute acts, and good ones. Sensuous and graceful, Liberty Sweet (one-fourth of London troupe Folly Mixtures) struts onstage, wrists held high in bondage ropes, for a formidable turn as Bettie Page. Despite the name, Ms Sweet is pure temptation as she languidly caresses her backseams with a riding crop. The routine is a testimony to the enrapturing appeal of a confident choreography: first a stocking floats in the air, then her corset dashes off like a bullet – every piece of her costume answers obediently to her command as the nimble vamp owns the stage.
At once lavish and intimate, Burlexe builds an engrossing atmosphere of rapport with the audience. Housed in Soho’s Shadow Lounge, it benefits greatly from the seedy feel of its basement bar, complete with under-lit dance floor and mirror ball on the ceiling (think Cellar Door with a small round bandstand and 200-plus capacity). At twenty pounds per ticket, though, the uniform lighting and bare stage feel a bit underwhelming. The actresses’ voices sound crisp and clear in the room’s acoustics, even without microphones, but badly timed backing tracks often drown out Kiki Kaboom’s hosting banter. It’s unfortunate to see the show’s relaxed, thoroughly absorbing ambiance marred by such isolated but indelible hairline fractures.
Burlexe casts a sincere and perceptive look at the tensions and drama behind the glitter. It is observational and eulogistic, but never at the expense of the magic and fantasy of the exotic stage. Look forward to a future run – the stories of these bold women are as entertaining to hear as they are enticing to behold.
Burlexe. Directed by Jayne Hardy. Shadow Lounge, Soho, London. 1, 15, 22, 29 June, 19:30. £20. www.burlexe.com
Photo Credits: Jason Read (Chloe Ewart, Kiki Kaboom and Dympna Messenger), Goodtime Mama Jojo courtesy of the performer