Musical / Variete Hackney Empire

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The Independent Culture
I have led a sheltered life, and this was my first experience of Lindsay Kemp's work. Yet there was something familiar about the experience, as if somehow I'd known all along what to expect. Or is that a tribute to Kemp's reputation?

The programme's chronology of Kemp's career showed that his first production, in 1962, was a double bill, half of it his version of Georg Buchner's 1837 play Woyzeck. In 1970 he mounted another production of the play, and he returns to it for a third time, presenting in Variete a collaboration with the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda in which there are traces of Woyzeck, of Chaplin's film The Circus and of other unnamed "sources of inspiration".

That genetic make-up should produce an intriguing hybrid, and there were moments when Variete achieved a tatterdemalion glamour. Miranda's score was played live by a trio (including the composer), cranking away like an appealingly broken-down vaudeville band. Some eerie interludes for musical saw simply emphasised that the few songs were largely characterless sub-Broadway numbers, although there were a couple of amply characterful voices available: Kinny Gardner, playing The Dog-Faced Boy, and Ernesto Tomasini, en travesti as La Belle Yvette, both had banshee falsettos that might have been better exploited.

The story Variete told was of the Woyzeck-like Franz Vogel, an idiot savant more idiot than savant, Harpo Marx crossed with Norman Wisdom. He falls in love with trapeze-artist Marie, played by Nuria Moreno as a mute Lucia di Lammermoor, all staring eyes and gawky movements. She, cruelly treated by her father the Showman, falls for the suave Rex , King of the Air. In a fit of jealousy, Franz murders Marie, a crime for which he is hanged, twice, once as the show opens, then as its final, most moving image. Staging this second execution as a circus act is the nearest Variete gets to coup de theatre: Franz, played by Kemp in a bird costume, climbs to the high wire. Gingerly, he sets off but after a couple of paces he is hoisted heavenwards by his neck, the body performing gruesome somersaults while feathers shower down from above. Goodbye, cruel circus.

And so the innocent, corrupted by jealousy, becomes society's sacrifice. The image of Franz's fluttering death-throes is grotesque and poignant but, elsewhere, Variete seemed to lack the courage of its convictions. If you present life as a circus, you need to do more than crack a whip and perform a few cartwheels; and while 100 minutes of showtime is hardly a marathon, Variete struggled to produce enough spectacle to fill its allotted span. The abiding memory is of Kemp taking multiple bows, milking the applause for all he was worth. His Cheshire Cat-grin suggested that our adoration was merely his due. The audience seemed happy to comply.