The Puppini Sisters, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Tuesday 06 January 2009
It's very scary over there," says blonde Puppini Kate Mullins of their time in Russia.
"Please be kind." The Puppini Sisters, three unrelated 1940s swing-style close-harmonisers, have spent some time in the company of Russian oligarchs recently. The Middle East and US jazz circuits have been welcoming, too. But the young women in the audience, in bright retro dresses and pining for champagne but settling for wine, are the crowd closest to the Sisters.
Here, too, are female family-members spanning three generations, late-middle-aged couples, and gay men. Swing-time covers of songs by The Smiths and Kate Bush show the Sisters' awareness of rock'n'roll, but they exist in a place somewhere between burlesque and 1970s Saturday teatime TV. This is cabaret for all the family.
This seasonal show, of course, comes complete with snow-bound backdrop, Christmas trees and presents. Marcella Puppini, the Italian brunette who lent her name to Mullins and the redhead Stephanie O'Brien, is the leader, and they're backed by a jazz trio.
Oddly, their strong voices are more convincing solo than merged in speeding close harmonies. The pathos and romance you might expect to find in 1940s-style music is also skimmed, although "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "If It Ain't Got That Swing" admittedly weren't designed for depth. When Puppini scales Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", all mad eyes and ripe growl, it matches the comedic disrespect most had for it on first hearing. "Silent Night", with its interpolation of "Little Match Girl", favours seasonal Victorian sadness, and their own "I Can't Believe I'm Not a Millionaire" is a convincing comic case of the Anita Loos blues. Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love" surprisingly blasts off on O'Brien's gypsy violin and torch-singer voice.
But when The Smiths' "Panic" demands us to "hang the blessed DJ", and O'Brien draws a slow slash across her neck, they're not really sharing Morrissey's desire to convert the charts to their retro tastes. This is simply supposed to be fun, most of all in the figure-scooping red dresses they switch for silver disco hotpants and circus acrobat frills. As they bend over in high heels with a camp wink, or sashay with a stripper's snap, their pleasure in glamour and clothes is more than half the show, and it's shared by those female fans delighted to doll up for it. The old-fashioned showbiz and ironic arched eyebrows creak, but you can't deny the good time being had by a happy crowd.
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