Dressing up Undressing : London Burlesque Festival

London Burlesque Festival

London Burlesque Festival leaves Francesca Goodwin wishing, for their sake, that it was still 1932.

It came as something of a shock, both to myself and to others, when I found myself volunteering to review The London Burlesque Festival. The phrase ‘But you’re like, a feminist’ (yes, do note that filthy capitalised F word) was bandied about and I was advised to remember that I should go with an open unprejudiced mind– in order to focus on the performance.

Not to plunge too deeply into the debates surrounding what feminism means now, I had in fact answered such nuggets of wisdom by proudly dusting off my copy of The Happy Stripper and settling down to an evening of watching playbacks of interviews with Dita Von Teese, in which she discusses the importance of ‘glamour’ over ‘beauty’ and the empowerment of female sexuality through the art of the striptease.

‘The art of Burlesque’, was in fact to be my mantra as I eagerly perused the programme of a festival which, professes to be filled with:

 ‘colour, panache and excitement and is simply the greatest showcase of international burlesque talent on earth’.

What better way to give Germaine Greer a cheeky new-wave nudge, I thought to myself.  If this all sounds a little too good to be true then that’s because it was. Although, to give LBF their dues for not doing things by halves, the bathos was not just a little, but catastrophic. It didn’t even take the half hour that I endured of ‘The LBF All Stars’ event to start throwing more clichéd spanners in the works than there were phallic balloon jokes in the performance.

there is some redemption to be found

in the fact that something so low tech

and reminiscent of ‘naughty’ vintage pin up

postcards, had the power to engender a true

community of people

Met with the Town Hall- esque venue that lent the whole affair a very village panto vibe, and the trestle tables that served as a bar in the hallway– around which a gang of ticket holders were congregated, (looking like a cross between the cast of Absolutely Fabulous and a Goodwood Revival meeting)– my guest and I promptly made a beeline for the nearest bar and ordered the driest martinis they could muster, served in real glasses.

Tearing ourselves away from the spectacle of the Italian barman and back to the spectacle at hand, the delightful vodka haze that he had so adeptly provided lasted for about the amount of time that the cocktails had taken to be shaken.

I almost wish that I could fall back on the adage of ‘style over substance’ and yet, there was certainly nothing stylish about the bag of brash sexist humour and distinctly mediocre – at best – performance that then followed. Perhaps I had misconstrued the agenda of the festival and yet, on re-scanning the press material the phrases ‘most acclaimed’, ‘prestigious’ and ‘show stopping’ continued to flaunt themselves in ‘red flag to a bull’ abundance.

London Burlesque Festival

If I had signed up for an amateur production of a Carry On classic then I would have been slightly satiated but there it was, in print no less, with only slight variations across repetitions.

This was Burlesque from a time when women taking their clothes off as quickly as possible, under the guise of those clothes happening to be costumes of variable spangly tastelessness, constituted entertainment.

We got through three acts in the space of twenty minutes – punctuated by exceptionally enervating narration from the host who appeared to have modelled himself on a Vegas ringmaster yet with not quite enough of the ruddy cheeked caricature to carry it off. That says enough in itself about the lack of teasing in the stripping.

I was muttering something about being greatly saddened, rather than titillated, by the Snow White-themed second act before we even got to the almost naked magician, who ran around swinging his crown jewels (that were covered by a deranged-looking inflatable mouse head). London Burlesque FestivalMy concern switched to the clear anxiety on the part of the child’s toy, which had certainly not been consulted prior to its employment.

Could we pay for him to put his clothes back on and get a cup of tea and a croissant? Could I get a croissant…? No, this wasn’t the Moulin Rouge, more’s the pity.

Reassurance was at hand however that the organisers also had ethical concerns in mind as, scuttling onto stage, came a semi- bustled chorus girl who served as a stage hand. Clearly they weren’t ones for outsourcing labour either. Queue invitations from the leering host to marvel at her ‘bend and snap’ approach to sweeping up feathers.

For full disclosure I should add that, admittedly, my window cleaner hasn’t yet mastered such manoeuvres but, neither did this display– of what I can only assume was comedy– inspire me to write that into the contract any time soon. I realise at this point that my use of the phrase ‘this was Burlesque’ could be alleged as a typo, since there was certainly no art or even consideration behind, well, any of it.

With the benefit of the ‘cooling off’ time span that followed the experience there was, however, something that was scratching at my outraged resolve. That was the fact that, despite the ramshackle organisation and laughable standards (rather than content) of the performances, the hall was packed. I haven’t heard so much laughter and indulgent joy since a family friend accidentally lost his trousers in a local drama society rendition of Oh What A Lovely War!

Indeed, if we put my feelings towards the clear focus on stripping rather thanLondon Burlesque Festival theatrics and witty repartee aside, then there is some redemption to be found in the fact that something so low tech and reminiscent of ‘naughty’ vintage pin up postcards, had the power to engender a true community of people. In central London no less, it was almost refreshing to find people delighting in simply donning their glad rags and partaking in an evening of good, honest slapstick and plastic-cupped socialising.

I couldn’t help thinking of the famous motto  ‘We never closed’ (Often modified to ‘We never clothed’) of The Windmill Theatre, in Great Windmill Street London, which was best known for its nude tableaux vivants. Performances continued throughout the Second World War and the Blitz, epitomising the ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos of the war spirit.

In light of the increasing onus on arts venues and organisations to dazzle audiences with technological flashes and bangs in order to fill ticket quotas, the fact that something so nostalgic, so artless and so utterly un-PC could sell out, almost thawed my cold ‘let’s reclaim the female gaze’ heart.

The sexism wasn’t clever but it wasn’t hurtful either and nodded back to a lost time where a bawdy side show was a means to share in a few hours of escapism with ‘The Missus’ and ‘The Boys’. Perhaps if I hadn’t read the press release and had my date with Dita, then the warm and fuzzy feeling would have taken more immediate effect.

The Italian looked slightly stunned when we slid into our still–warm seats at the oh-so-conveniently located bar:

‘Two of the same but sweeter’

We needed some sugar to help the medicine go down.

22 Comments

  1. You need a good, honest editor. The review should have been about two-thirds shorter, and a lot wittier. Incidentally, as a feminist, how do you feel about the hidden epidemic of FGM in the UK?

  2. Agreed. What exactly is the writer trying to say? That the show was crap and sexist but she forgives them because a load of idiots packed the hall out? “The sexism wasn’t clever but it wasn’t hurtful either” – who do you think you are kidding? Sexism in all its guises creates a society where women are objectified, judged on their appearance and treated as second class citizens who still earn significantly less than men. While I’m not saying that there is a direct link from stripping to rape and FGM, it is all part of a culture that sees women as sex objects and men’s possessions rather than as independent, intelligent human beings. Two women a week in the UK die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. There is an epidemic of sexual harassment, rape and FGM throughout the world. Why are you wasting your time reviewing this nonsense? What next – a review of Page 3 girls?!

  3. I thought this was a fun, light-hearted assessment of a show and a satirical nod to the hypocrisy of some female responses to repression.

    What the article clearly is not about, and does not make any pretensions to be about, is FGM or rape. Both commentors above suggest link the article tenuously to these issues and accuse the writer implicitly of not referring to them.

    No right-minded, sensible person, and certainly not the writer, turns a blind eye to what are obviously very real and distressing problems. I cannot, however, see why those issues must be raised in a theatre review. The implication of your comments is that every article published here (and presumably elsewhere) should concern physical sexual violence. That is absurd.

    Why not enjoy the article for what it is? Furthermore, there is no need for the aggressive tone. This sort of pernicious, vitriolic and righteous response does not cast anyone in a better light, and is, I suggest, best avoided.

  4. How can someone give an honest review of an 11 day event after plunging in for 20 minutes clearly with an agenda to tear apart the production and art form. Some of the worst journalism I’ve ever the misfortune of reading.

  5. This article is bad journalism and reads like a 17 year old’s blog. Theo – nobody is saying that the review should have made reference to rape and FGM. The point to which I am objecting is the contention that sexism is ok if it fills a hall. How anyone who describes herself as a feminist (maybe she meant post-feminist?!) can say that any form of sexism isn’t hurtful is beyond me. And Germaine Greer doesn’t need a “cheeky new wave nudge” – she is an intelligent and articulate writer with a brain in her head, unlike the author of this article.

  6. As someone who was a paying customer for this event, an a pass holder for the entire 11 days of LBF can vouch that it was a quality show from start to finish, and was not sexist in any way. LBF is a celebration of both female and male performance. Entertainment at it’s purest form. The audience was made up of at least 75% women from where we sat, and everyone enjoyed themselves by the wide smiles and thunderous laughter and applause. The editor of this blog should be ashamed to even have such an ignorant and arrogant writer on staff.

  7. What a load of cods wallop! The writer is all over the place! The naked magical man sounds fantastic!! Maybe too much for this tight arsed lady or maybe her husband would read this.

  8. The fact that London Burlesque Festival has been running successfully for 8 years and sells out is a testament in itself. Myself and my wife have been attending the event for the past 5 years and it continues to set a standard where most if not all other London Burlesque shows fail. We’ve been attending Burlesque shows in USA, UK & Europe and LBF is by far the best Burlesque we’ve seen. LBF is REAL Burlesque unlike the over produced shows of the Moulin Rouge or Dita. Lady- If you want a croissant go to a bakery. If you’re up for a world class Burlesque show, look no further. It seems to us this lady was more concerned about her martinis then actually paying attention past the first interval. If you’re too much of a snob to drink from plastic cups, get out of the West End, all the theatres and big productions run this way.

  9. Myself and 10 other ladies attended the LBF daytime event starting at 11am on the 24th, followed by the LBF All Stars in the evening. Conway Hall was a perfect venue for a community driven event. The organisers did a bang up job, giving personal attention to the paying customers at every stage of the experience. Not only did they treat us well on stage, we were greeted with warm welcomes on arrival and friendly smiles as we left. The stage manager was superb and an integral part of the show. To attack the integrity of the event shows a lack of respect for the arts as a whole. Being objective and even critical is one thing, but to abuse the privilege as a reviewer is another. A clear attempt to make Chaz, LBF & Burlesque look bad for the mere hope in garnering attention.

  10. As an editor at a high profile stage magazine, I would never send an unexperienced writer to review something they had to research before attending. It would be like sending a country music journalist to review a Slayer show. I was there. The event was well run, the prices at the bar were comfortable. The staff were helpful and friendly. We had ample leg room. The sound and lights were spot on. The host swallowed a 6 foot long balloon at the start of the show, and yes, the magician may have used a similar balloon gag, but trust me, there was ample tease of all varieties throughout LBF. Nothing was rushed. At the end of the night we left feeling satisfied and would highly recommend the event to anyone who has yet to attend.

    • As the editor of a high profile stage magazine you might want to consider sending ‘inexperienced’ writers to review shows. It might help your magazine move beyond the facile predictability of shop-talk, cronyism and established cliche of language and attitude which tends to result from sending old-hand writers out to review their friends. Clive James reviewing Beyonce at Glastonbury – one of the finest newspaper reviews in the past 20 years, would not have happened via your rules. If it takes an ingenue from outside of the cosy Burlesque establishment to suggest that these are decidedly amateurish performances, then perhaps that’s something the Burlesque establishment might take note of, rather than blustering energetically about how outrageously wrong she must be.
      Who *would* you send to review a Slayer concert? A Slayer fan, presumably. Would that result in a credible review, or a screed of sycophantic guff by a writer too close to countenance anything in need of improvement?

      • Well the writer in question could at very least try to look beyond the first of 3 sets and see what the show is all about. She was clearly too impatient and ignorantly passed off the event as something it was not. Sending writers with a biased agenda is not the way to go.

  11. Chaz & LBF is the only production I know who bother to do anything remotely exciting in the UK. All these other shows and scene reviewers continue to ride off the coat tails of the event. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No wonder the event sells out every year, it keeps getting better with age.

  12. This reads to me like someone went to see a show, didn’t really “get” it (expecting Dita, not realising that burlesque is supposed to be a bit home-grown and bad panto-esque)had some concerns about the quality of the show and applied a certain type of feminist thinking to the whole affair. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with writing about how she felt. It’s just as valid to not enjoy burlesque (as a show or a genre) as it is to love it. It’s not the end of the world to get a bad review, that’s show biz. It really saddens me that this reviewer got abused and harassed for writing this piece. Is that who we want to be, burlesque world? Do we really want to bully people into silence rather than hear their genuine opinion about our art? We should be at least considering all opinions, burlesque has always been controversial and divisive. We should always be professional and we should always be kind!

    • I am not anything to do with this genre but think it’s a poorly written article. I am entitled to my opinion too right?

  13. I was the first to comment, and the first to mention FGM. Now, please note that I did not say the reviewer SHOULD have mentioned FGM. I asked what her opinion was. That’s all.

    I’ve been involved in a row with the appalling NSPCC who refuse to “do the right thing” as far as FGM is concerned and insist that it is a “complex issue” that needs, wait for it, “raised awareness”.

    So I get cheesed off when I read these amateurish, self satisfied bloated articles dissecting the politics of burlesque from a feminist perspective. No doubt you will get ten out of ten from your diversity trainer, but to most other people it’s unreadable. PS – I declare an interest, my mate was in the show.

  14. I’m glad that people enjoyed the event, but the harassment and abuse that this writer has experienced at the hands of the producer is shocking and inexcusable. I don’t care if he puts on the best shows in the country (he doesn’t – seriously, branch out a little), his constant public putdowns, temper tantrums and outbursts on the public LBF page makes the entire community look like oversensitive and out-of-touch divas who can’t take criticism. Insulting international legends, slandering sponsors who have supported him for years and now calling critics “brainless” and accusing them of trying to destroy artists? Disgusting.

    • Anyone with half a brain can clearly see that over sensitive journalists and general scene haters have been trying to make LBF looks bad since day 1! The event continues to thrive in an industry rife with watered down amateur upstarts and pretentious marked down dinner cabaret.

  15. This article is a load of shite and This is Cabaret should go to hell for supporting it.
    These bloody writers have an agenda, it’s clear! And it’s no secret that Mr Royal has chosen to ban TIC for their ongoing attempts to make him and LBF look bad. I’m on social media like everyone else in the scene and have not seen any outbursts or personal attacks from the LBF camp, yet the 12 alternatives to LBF shows huge lack of respect for an annual event that has helped the industry grow dearly. Anyone can post ‘You’re pathetic’ and sign someone’s email and name to help fuel the fire. I sense these losers to be mere groupies needing self validation and a cheap way to see shows free. You think you can do it better? Let’s see you all try!

  16. The impact of LBF is far greater than these people are wanting to give credit.
    Myself and hundreds of people fly in to see the event because IT IS the best burlesque event in the world. I’ve been to all the major events in USA, EU & even Australia (I’m from Melbourne) and although you can see some high profile U.S. acts at BHOF, the standard and creativity at LBF sets an international standard. The shows are imaginative, well produced and do justice to the various themes and genres that fly within the Burlesque ‘banner’. Chaz and the LBF team deserve a lot more respect people!

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