The Hurly Burly Show
The West End had it coming. With the current burlesque craze showing no signs of losing momentum, the tassel-twirling invasion of the mainstream has at last spilt into London’s Theatreland. Miss Polly Rae’s song-and-dance revue goes for the big time with sultry moves, bawdy parody and cheeky pastiche, but if anything, this ambitious show proves that bump-and-grinding does not translate into large-scale theatrics as easily as its vintage glamour tendencies may suggest.
Developed by Kylie Minogue’s artistic director William Baker, The Hurly Burly Show moves on the strength of a versatile seven-dancer army, weaving provocative fantasies out of captivating choreographies played out in impressive production values far above the average variety bill. It doesn’t, however, fully bridge the gap between intimate supper clubs and West End spectacle. The revue’s symmetrical stage design, parading moving sets in front of a basic three-alcove structure upstage, feels stifled and predictable after a handful of numbers.
Counting over twenty acts in one hour and forty minutes, the show drags with repetition. When the climax of every striptease is a g-string, even the most inventive dance routines grow dull and uninspiring. The individual acts follow diverse, if on the whole predictable, premises: a cowgirl routine, a geisha routine, a nun routine, a teacher routine. Within their humorous context, they sport a number of delightful gimmicks that surprise and entertain, like Polly Rae rising stiffly from a coffin as in Murnau’s Nosferatu, or disembodied arms reaching through an oversized bed’s headboard to feel her up in a phone-sex rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad. Lacking equally moving pay-offs, though, they all sadly go to waste.
Nowhere is the show more enticing than in its transitional solo sketches. Between the more lavish multi-dancer numbers, the Hurly Burly girls strut their stuff, one at a time, in front of closed curtains. Ooh La Lou (of Folly Mixtures fame) dons a welding helmet and coveralls for a cheer-inducing Flashdance parody, stripping vividly to Irene Cara’s What a Feeling. The evening cranks up the volume more than a few notches as Kitty Bang Bang springs from her signature graffiti-covered garbage can for some serious fire-eating, raving maniacally to Jayne County’s (If You Don’t Wanna Fuck Me Baby) Fuck Off. A bold mix of daintiness (gotta love those ballet shoes) and confrontation, Miss Bang Bang’s act entrances the audience all the way to her bird-flipping, fire tassel-twirling finale, boasting a vibrant élan sorely missed elsewhere in the show. Other solos included the petit Sophie Zucchini’s lush strip to Portishead’s Glorybox and a balloon-popping routine by Katie Ella Hardwicke, annoyingly tiresome with its endless string of girly shrieks.
Music is an uneven feature in the bill. Juxtaposing live music, backing tracks and original songs is a common blunder that makes many smaller-scale burlesque acts look clumsy – a mistake aggravated here by the magnitude of the performing space. The initial half is largely dominated by the unexplainable inclusion of pianist-crooner Spencer Day, whose tame banter and uninspired performances of oldies like Jerry Lee Lewis’ Honky Tonk Stuff and Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy (in addition to originals like Till You Come to Me from his album Vagabond) detracted greatly from an already struggling first act. Polly Rae’s flat voice fares little better as she tackles everything from Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend to a medley of Ella Fitzgerald and Destiny’s Child.
But boy can she dance. Polly Rae is a master of timing, gliding effortlessly out of outfits as she struts confidently at the head of her curvaceous troupe. A cop act finds her voluptuously undoing her hair and making a languid climax of every garment removed. It takes consummate moves like Rae’s to fully realize what a rare treat a proper tassel twirl has become in modern burlesque, with the fickle ornaments obeying their mistress gracefully instead of bouncing randomly around. Her signature fan dance, with the lavish blue pheasant feather fans featured in the posters, is hands-down the apex of the show, evolving steadily with inventive reveals and clever accents.
The Hurly Burly Show ticks all the boxes of burlesque: the humour is topical and controversial, the dancers dress up their routines with lively personas, the language of striptease is deftly explored in its most archetypal numbers. It is its lukewarm whole that fails to integrate all the glitter into a sharp bill with a clear identity. It’s too busy for variety, and too flat for large-scale theatre: its glitz doesn’t suffice to turn the show into more than a string of striptease numbers, which all but vanish in the opulence of a West End venue. If the stage thrives on big, the economical aesthetics of burlesque will need more grandeur than this to avoid becoming a case of less is less.
The Hurly Burly Show. Directed by William Baker. Garrick Theatre, London. 3 March-01 May, Wed-Thu 20:00, Fri-Sat 19:00 and 21:15, Sun 17:00 and 19:30. £25.50-40.50. www.hurlyburlyuk.com
Photos by Ken McKay