Limiting admission to 100 spectators, new monthly revue Forbidden Cabaret flaunted an intriguing concept that made me anticipate a night I’d never forget. Details of the show were kept secret until the night, creating a buzz about what and who would be gracing the stage to entertain and seduce you. Upon delivery, however, the ambitious debut needed more substance.
‘This is not here,’ announces an unseen host in an opening monologue claiming the show to be nonexistent. Firmly grounded in this alternate universe – or mass delusion – we dive straight into the show. No compère introduction announces the first or any other of the numbers that follow. The gimmick makes for a strange, if slightly flat opening. Starting the proceedings is Joe Black, whose accordion- and ukulele-fuelled music hall musings include an entertainingly sinister version of You Are My Sunshine. That song will never again seem like the upbeat tune from my childhood.
The disembodied voice soon turns out to be that of Benjamin Louche, who swaggers onstage like an underworld lounge lizard and treats us Barry Adamson’s Psychosexual. Throughout the night, the unusual MC precedes each new act with an eerie spoken word interlude, faintly allusive to the content of what is to follow. His comment on sex change is taken up by Vivid Angel, a habitué at producer Chaz Royal’s more risqué neo-burlesque projects (like Twisted Cabaret). Her fiery beginning announced a proper spectacle, but soon proved pointless in its lack of connection to the act, a mix of striptease and faux genital mutilation with Marilyn Manson’s shock rock for a soundtrack. A good idea in principle, it felt clumsy and under-rehearsed in execution as its many props compromised pace and made the story arc confusing.
The second half begins with some walk-about burlesque from Madame Zabou. Though sexy and confident, the number remains out of sight for most of the audience due to the venue’s different levels. More burlesque comes courtesy of double act Tango Manga, which sees a voluptuous female dancer joined by a sword-wielding male counterpart. Blades and burlesque have always been a winning combination for me but this ended up being a damp squib. The swords seemed more for appearance than for performance.
The highlight of the evening was a clumsy Spanish magician that indulges in cheesy cruise-ship magic, only to subvert it with smart, surprising tricks: Johnny Electrolux performs a wonderful bluff in which you think you’re going to be groaning at bad magic, but are instead amazed.
This evening could be a hit and new staple in the cabaret calendar, but there are a few kinks to work out first. The need for a real compère is evident: a show promising dark and twisted cabaret needs something to hold it together, to let audience and acts bond. Although the idea is interesting, the limited public interaction coming from Louche (and his disembodied voice) just seemed confused and weak. It also flies in the face of the cabaret genre, a performance type that is famous for audience inclusion and interaction. The in-character stage management from Dot Cotton was delightful to see, but lost without a traditional compère to pair with. I’ll be interested to see what Mr Royal has in store for us next time at Forbidden Cabaret. Maybe some more daring burlesque?
Forbidden Cabaret. Madame Jojo’s, London. Second Wednesday of every month, 21:00. £12.50-22.50. www.madamejojos.com
Photos courtesy of the performers