A dark haired girl sits on the edge of the stage dressed in her underwear and wrapped in a sheer black dressing gown. Pulling it close, she tells us about the ups and downs of manic depression. During the downs you become very introverted, she says. But you can’t be an introvert on stage. Stripping, she explains, has helped her deal with a psychological disorder that years of treatment in and out of hospitals couldn’t fix. In a way you could say burlesque has saved her.
“What do you think about that?” she asks.
Hmm. What do I think about that? It’s unusual to be asked. Burlesque, as a rule, is pure entertainment. It can be witty, it can be risqué and it can be beautiful but once you’ve laughed, admired and applauded, you can usually expect to go home and forget about it. Burlexe, I am already beginning to suspect, wants to be something more.
Hosted by 90s R&B singer, Kele Le Roc, it features top burlesque performers Kiki Kaboom, Ginger Blush, Fancy Chance, Dinah Might and Luna Rosa, as well as actresses Chloe Ewart, Dympna Messenger and Gillian McGregor. A mixture of song, dance and storytelling staged in the sparsely propped interior of The Shadow Lounge, Soho, Burlexe is not without its merits. The transitions are slick, the space well-utilised, and there are solid performances all round.
Fancy Chance’s Alice in Wonderland strip/skit is frantic, surreal and off the wall – just my cup of tea – while Ginger Blush is delightfully daft as the good girl who ‘accidentally’ finds herself embarking on an adventure in anal sex. Dinah Might displays expert fan technique in a more traditional routine and Luna Rosa goes full frontal (though disappointingly doesn’t dance) in a sultry homage to her own beauty.
So far, so burlesque. But then things start to get serious. The show, which began in November 2010, endeavours to reveal the ‘other side’ of burlesque. Between the customary dance and strip numbers, we are presented with a number of monologues based on the true stories of real burlesque performers. These range from the light-hearted and amusing to the desperately tragic and are drawn from the biographies of such illustrious names as Chesty Morgan and Gypsy Rose Lee as well as more contemporary stars such as founder of the London Academy of Burlesque and Burlexe’s own creative director, Jo King. But unless you have your Complete Dictionary of Cabaret and Burlesque to hand, you’re unlikely to realise this. The show provides no clues and there’s no line drawn between what’s real and what’s fabricated. Rather than illuminating the world of burlesque, it shrouds it ever further in mystery. Did that really happen? you wonder. Is she still in character? Was that a joke?
And naturally we only hear the juicy stories. Nobody gets up on stage in jogging bottoms and says “I went to drama school and then got into cabaret because I like glitter and I’m a bit of an exhibitionist” yet for most burlesquers I have met – and I’d wager most of the performers in Burlexe – that’s a lot closer to the truth. But those aren’t the kind of stories that will hold an audience’s attention for two and a half hours. So instead we hear the harrowing tale of Tura Satana who was gang raped in Chicago aged nine and later became an exotic dancer (it’s not made clear how the two are linked but the general message here as elsewhere is: “terrible things happened to this woman and she overcame them… oh and burlesque is involved”).
Judge me, go on, I dare you, the show seems to say. But sadly it’s all mouth and no trousers.
For all its bravado Burlexe never really opens up. The history of burlesque is rich and varied and the stories of the women that helped shape it are interesting. They can be heart-warming, they can be tragic and they are, in some ways, inspiring. But jumble them up, out of context, interspersed with comedy and music, and all you get is another kind of striptease; you get a snippet, a hint, a soundbite. Not once do you get any real sense of who these women were, much less the women that are performing their stories. Then again, you have to remember that burlesque is not exactly known for its full disclosure. Its stars perform behind stage names, bodies covered with glitter and tassles; a peek here, a wink there; now you see it, now you don’t. Burlesque is not about truth, it’s about tease.
Burlexe feels no different. That’s not to say it fails completely, though. I did not come away feeling I’d learnt anything terribly profound but it did pique my interest. It’s not often a burlesque show will ask you questions and it’s even rarer that you will leave with questions of your own. The format is fresh and it’s exciting to see somebody trying to do something different with what is usually just a slot in yet another cabaret variety show.
“It’s a celebration of women,” one companion asserted afterwards. It’s not. It is, however, a celebration of burlesque. It’s witty, risqué and at times beautiful. But it doesn’t yet offer anything more.
Burlexe is back on April 25th. Book tickets here and let me know what YOU think.