Come to the Cabaret: A darker diversion

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Cabaret is back – but there is far more to it than light entertainment. Politically subversive, perfect for those jaded by bland Cowell proteges, these shows are shockingly modern, says Ben Chu

Cabaret. What does the word mean to you? Perhaps it's Liza Minnelli in a bowler hat and suspenders. Or can-can dancers in fin-de-siècle Paris. Or a crooner in a 1950s' New York supper club.

Perhaps it means a scene that's preserved in aspic, a historic curiosity, a dead art form. Well, if so, it's time to reconsider.

A cabaret revival has been throbbing in London for several years now. From the scruffy environs of the Bethnal Green Working Mens Club to the opulence of the Café de Paris near Piccadilly Circus, sizeable crowds gather most nights of the week somewhere in the capital to take in a variety show. And now the performance art has been included as a separate category on this month's Edinburgh Fringe programme for the first time. Cabaret is no dusty tin of preserved fruit – it's fresh, ripe and bursting with flavour.

So what is cabaret? It's an elastic category. A cabaret bill can include song, dance, comedy, magic, circus tricks and strip tease (burlesque). A typical night is a sequence of at least half a dozen different acts, usually no more than 15-minutes long.

The evening will be hosted by a flamboyant and mischievous compere, who will normally perform his or her own songs, crack jokes, banter with the audience and introduce the acts. The venue generally will be relatively intimate. Alcohol will be served.

Cabaret sucks up all those performers that don't have a natural place anywhere else. Dickie Beau is a performance artist. His Judy Garland show – in which he lip-synchs to a recorded monologue by the inebriated star while dressed in red Dorothy-esque pigtails – is an exhilarating race from hilarity to horror. Desmond O'Connor is a sort of twisted George Formby, performing songs about incest and necrophilia ("love is great, romance is fab/ when you're humping and pumping on the coroner's slab") with a ukulele accompaniment. Or take Piff the Magic Dragon, a deadpan magician dressed like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. It's comedy, character acting and magic all at once. If something's entertaining but hard to classify, it's probably cabaret.

Where did it all come from? The seeds were planted in the demi-monde of late 19th-century Paris. Cabarets were boozy clubs where poets, artists, composers and radicals would swap ideas and perform. The venues became a home for satire and risqué subversion because they were small enough to fly under the censors' radar. From Paris, cabaret spread across Europe to Madrid, Vienna, Zurich and Budapest.

In Britain it fused with music hall and variety. When it arrived in America, it melded with vaudeville and found a home in the speakeasies in the Prohibition era. But the 20th-century cabaret capital was undoubtedly Berlin, which combined riotous decadence and daring dissent in the 1920s and 1930s as the German nation sank into the embrace of Nazism.

The performers and audiences in modern cabaret are acutely aware of the art form's history. Indeed, there's a sizeable overlap with the swing jazz revival scene. A band called Top Shelf Jazz combine the two forms brilliantly. Impeccable swing tunes are served up with obscene lyrics by the lead singer, Arthur Foxaque, a diabolic mash-up of Terry-Thomas and Al Bowlly. Swing revival and cabaret crowds both like to dress up.

The audience will often be a sea of vintage clothing, full of zoot suits, feather boas and cloche hats. There have been strange fusions, too, at the edges. A duo called The Correspondents have developed a form called "swing hop", which mixes samples from classic swing records with modern dance beats. The front man, Mr Bruce, could happily grace any cabaret stage with his flailing-limbed dancing and jester-like costumes.

So why is cabaret enjoying this resurgence? There are theories. Many involved in the scene reckon it suits the modern short attention span well. The rapid turnover of acts means there's no time to get bored. Some suggest it offers value for money in our hard-up times. A typical show will cost between £10 and £15 – quite reasonable for a whole evening of entertainment in an expensive capital. It certainly provides escapism. The giant feathered fans of the burlesque dancers, the acrobatics of the circus acts, the vertiginous high heels of the drag queens offer a flash of exotic glamour in the economic gloom.

But there's more to the cabaret than light entertainment. The subversive streak that has traditionally been an important element of the art form survives. Some have complained that modern cabaret lacks the satirical edge of its classic incarnations, that there's too much clowning and striptease and too few denunciations of the Coalition.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of classic cabaret. The art form has always been a mélange of the frivolous and the politically challenging. In Christopher Isherwood's 1930s' novelised memoir Goodbye to Berlin – upon which the musical and film Cabaret were based – the author describes attending a venue called the Salomé in which he witnesses a drag queen dressed in a spangled crinoline and jewelled breast-caps doing the splits three times. It wasn't always all excoriating critiques of totalitarianism.

Moreover, subversive cabaret has always been as much about cultural non-conformism as political dissent.

The intention is often to say, or perform, the things that cause hypocrites to take offence, to épater le bourgeois. The "dark cabaret", which takes place in speakeasy-style venues in east London, continues this tradition. The Double R Club is one of the edgiest nights in the capital. Last month, the compere, Benjamin Louche, mimed an abortion operation on stage with a pair of ancient medical tongs. A woman dubbed Traumata pulled needles out from under the skin of her forehead. The blood ran down over her white corset and underwear as she lifted her arms into the cruciform pose, looking like a sexualised female Christ minus the crown of thorns. To round off the night, the burlesque dancer Fancy Chance gyrated inside a giant cloth vagina. After being "born" from within, she bit through a thick umbilical cord which squirted a dark fluid down the front of her baby costume. It's twisted. Sick, even. But that's the point.

There's a parallel with gay performance art. The University of Sussex academic, Andy Medhurst, has argued that early 20th-century camp culture answered heterosexual disapproval through a strategy of "defensive offensiveness". Drag queens embodied all the bigots' worst fears about homosexuals and their lifestyles. The gay subculture embraced that stereotype and played up to it. They responded to the fires of hate with bucketloads of irony. Twisted cabaret does something similar and not just for oppressed gays, but for anyone who does not quite "fit in". Cabaret, in its more edgy forms, is a celebration of strangeness and the liberated imagination.

The wider cultural context is relevant, too. Some regard the cabaret revival as a reaction to a bland entertainment mainstream dominated by the protégés of Simon Cowell and stadium-filling inoffensive comedians like Michael McIntyre. Cabaret seems to fulfil a craving for something more mad and dangerous. At the Boom Boom Club in the arches below Waterloo Station last week the compere Jonny Woo, a 6ft-plus drag queen dressed as a kind of Japanese devil, implored the audience to scream for the next act "as if you're watching re-runs of Britain's Got fucking Talent". The crowd lustily obliged.

Yet Dusty Limits, one of the most respected figures on the London cabaret circuit, is ambivalent about Cowell's TV talent competitions. "There's something dehumanising about those shows because they have researchers persuading people that they've made the cut, but knowing that they're absolutely awful, so that we can all point and laugh," he tells me. "But having said that, there's a collateral benefit in that it raises the profile of variety. People want to go out and see the real thing."

But what about that retro aesthetic – all those girls dressed like flappers, all that jitterbugging and burlesque? An outsider might jump to the conclusion that this is terribly twee and nostalgic. The performance artist, Scottee, who has founded an avant-garde cabaret collective called Eat Your Heart Out, doesn't like this "1930s' stuff". He told The Independent on Sunday last month that "Weimar cabaret and early variety were used to get the everyman opinion on whatever was going on in society... I think we forget it is really a way to relay a message about your politics or your ethics to an audience."

Yet counter-cultures often use old forms that they then transform into something new. Young people in Greenwich Village in the 1960s adopted folk music as a means of challenging the social order of the day. In the 1970s, American punk rockers like the Ramones dressed like 1950s' bikers. And Dusty Limits suggests that modern cabaret's use of songs and musical forms from previous eras is sometimes a technique of "historification", as defined by Bertolt Brecht. The German playwright argued that critiques of contemporary society can sometimes be conveyed to an audience more effectively using stories and images from the past. So rather than singing about how terrible, for instance, David Cameron is, a modern cabaret performer might search out a song written a century ago that lampoons some long-forgotten, but intensely loathed, authority figure from the past.

"To confuse the visual style of something with its actual ideological content is an error of judgement," Dusty Limits says.

So will the cabaret/retro revival change anything? Peter Cook once sardonically noted that the inter-war German cabarets "did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War". Yes, but Hitler died in his bunker and cabaret – which the Nazis loathed and tried to extirpate – still lives. Indeed, the fate of the Austrian corporal is to be sent up all over Europe by the cabaret stalwart Frank Sanazi. "Third Reich," Sanazi, to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life", croons, "that's what all the people say/ I took Poland in April/ And France in May". That's a moral triumph for the art form in itself.

Of course, Cook's scepticism about the ability of art to transform society was justified. Cabaret is an outlet for creativity as much as a vehicle for the transmission of political ideology, a lung through which outsiders can breathe. Moreover, if cabaret became much bigger, the intimacy that is its lifeblood would evaporate. And a full embrace of commercialism would soon see that subversive streak scrubbed away.

Cabaret is best understood as one of WH Auden's "ironic points of light" that shines in the political and cultural darkness, offering hope to the likeminded. Perhaps this revival will burn itself out. But for the moment, at least, the flame is burning brightly.

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