Glam rocks: Meet the stars who are taking cabaret mainstream

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Cabaret and burlesque are back in fashion – and booming like never before. But will the scene lose its divinely decadent edge now that it has hit the mainstream? Holly Williams meets the leading lights and searches for secrets among the sequins

From the tiniest back-room of the grottiest pub to the grandest West End theatre, cabaret is suddenly everywhere – outgrowing its roots at London venues such as the Cafe de Paris, Bethnal Green Working Men's Club and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to cross over to the mainstream.The Hurly Burly Show, at the accessible end of the burlesque spectrum, recently had a successful West End run, while cabaret star Meow Meow was about the only critically lauded element of the recent staging of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In a time of slashed subsidies, the Soho Theatre has opened a whole new space, dedicated to cabaret and comedy. Meanwhile, The Box – frequented by celebs and referred to by red-tops as "the sleaziest club in London" – has imported a saucy brand of New York cabaret to Soho. And the Edinburgh festival has, for the first time, a dedicated cabaret listings section – which is apt, given it was a fringe export, the spectacular La Clique, that spearheaded cabaret's renaissance.

Perhaps surprisingly, the world's biggest dedicated cabaret club is in Glasgow. "Most people's perception is that you're going to get hit over the head with a bottle of Stella in Glasgow," says Ian Single, who runs Club Noir. "It is a working-class city, but we've managed to create this thing, getting 2,000 people along." While Steve Marmion, artistic director of the Soho Theatre, points out that, "Cabaret has always been present in times of recession: historically, you can look at Le Chat Noir in Paris, the pre-war clubs in Berlin, the Depression era in the US." You certainly get plenty of bang for your buck: the standard cabaret format is to have several performers, or a performer who does several things. Why just go to a comedy show, when you could have comedy with music, mayhem and mad outfits?

Meow Meow, who has just had her own show at the Apollo Theatre, also gets excited about that cross-over potential: "The cabaret I love incorporates the best bits of all the so-called genres: wondrous music with political satire mixed with out-and-out showbiz plus some kind of truth in delivery that makes us hear a song or an idea differently to the way we've always – or never – heard it."

This idea of a kernel of truth behind all the glitter and camp seems common among most cabaret performers. The on-stage persona is a character they've come up with, a heightened version of who they really are. As Meow Meow puts it, in cabaret "there is always a sense of rawness, or perhaps just realness, even when covered in sequins."

The lady of 1,000 faces

Sarah Louise Young, 35

"Cabaret Whore began three years ago when I started doing my first character, Sammy Mavis Junior, a country-and-western-porn-star-cum-philosopher. It's clowning, really, finding your true self as a performer by using characters. I now have Bernie St Clair, who's a Broadway diva; Kasia, who is a Polish performance artist; Baby Doll, a deluded former child star; and La Poule Plombée, a tortured French chanteuse. I'm amazed by how much people talk to me about them as if they were real.

"For a lot of people, cabaret is Liza Minnelli, but I relate to its origins as an underground establishment where you can get across a political message, where you can say things you maybe wouldn't in mainstream theatre.

"I trained in drama at Bristol University and did a one-year postgrad course in musical theatre, but I didn't quite fit the mould: I'd written my own material and took my first solo show to Edinburgh when I was 21. Ten years ago I set up my own cabaret show with two performers I still work with. There wasn't really a scene then, so it's really exciting that cabaret is getting recognised now.

"I like to make people think and come away with something. You hope you don't offend anyone too much, but it can't hurt to ruffle their feathers a little bit."

'Cabaret Whore: More! More! More!' is at the Udderbelly on London's South Bank on 10 July and at the Underbelly, Edinburgh, in August (underbelly.co.uk)

The drag artist

Jonny Woo 38

"I like to take audiences on a roller-coaster journey through a show. I have set-pieces, and I do a lot of improvised freestyle stuff, which I dread and love at the same time. I do songs and burlesque, and I'm always taking my clothes off, the make-up and the shoes, and at the end of the night I'm completely naked.

"Over the past five years, cabaret has exploded. I have my scene, which is the gay end of it, but there's a lot going on. It's about variety, not just comedy; you have a music element, a visual element, an erotic element...

"I'd done theatre at university, and I went to the London Contemporary Dance School, but I got into cabaret when I went to New York in 2000. My friends there were performing on the downtown scene. One had a piece of spoken word and I said, 'I'll do this beatbox and dance next to it.' All my friends were like, 'You are an artist, whether you're a poet, stripper or drag queen.'

"I wanted to translate it here, so I started throwing a party called Radio Egypt. I'd dress up and have a mic and perform over the records and jump around.

"The 'new cabaret' scene is definitely a separate circuit to drag queens at old-school gay bars. It's the new alternative comedy, which has become so mainstream it's like, 'What's the alternative to that? Oh, it's cabaret.'"

Jonny Woo's Gay Bingo is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com), from 3 July to 4 September

The edgy innovator

Scottee 25

"I'm a performer in the widest sense of the word. I use cabaret, performance art and live art and mix them together to create accessible work with a political edge.

"The scene has been a little bit stagnant, all retro, a lot of 1930s stuff, which isn't my cup of tea. Weimar cabaret and early variety were used to get the everyman opinion on whatever was going on in society. It would be about how the common people could feel disenfranchised. I think we forget it is really a way to relay a message about your politics or your ethics to an audience.

"I was expelled from school at 14 and never went back into the education system. But I went to a summer course in acting at the Roundhouse in Camden and started doing community theatre and fringe theatre, so it was quite organic. I was a solo performer, and I set up Eat Your Heart Out four years ago, out of frustration. The performance artists didn't like me as I wasn't trained; cabaret didn't like me as I was too mouthy; burlesque didn't like me as I thought women had more to offer than just taking their clothes off. So I had to build my own space, with like-minded performers.

"Audiences expect more now. Cabaret has become more populist, which ties in with the economic climate – it's a cheap night to see lots of things in one show."

'Eat Your Heart Out' is at Assembly George Square, Edinburgh (assemblyfestival.com), from 26 to 28 August

The pop parodists

Matthew Jones 26 and Laura Corcoran 26

Matthew Jones: "Musical-comedy cabaret covers what we do, and we say our subject matter is pop music, and that it's for the MTV generation, although it's amazing how many different age groups turn out to be fans."

Laura Corcoran: "We met at university in a production of Guys & Dolls in 2003 and hit it off pretty quickly."

MJ: "Then we lived together in London. She was auditioning, I was trying to get piano gigs, she was working in a shop. But luckily for us, we were asked to do a 10-minute slot at a musical-theatre night, and we took real songs that existed and made them silly..."

LC: "...and it was just such a release to just be silly and sing some Madonna! We did 'Papa Don't Preach' as an aria. We were on last, and everyone was hammered, but from the first song the audience were just with us. Matthew got offered a place at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he deferred a year so we could give [our double act] Frisky & Mannish a go. We thought, 'Let's do one Edinburgh show, in 2009, let's throw everything at it' – and it went really well."

MJ: "We don't just try to be funny, we try to have a moment of poignancy. Cabaret is about making people laugh but also think – or it's about spectacle, fireworks."

Frisky & Mannish are at the Udderbelly on London's South Bank on 7 July, and at Udderbelly's Pasture, Edinburgh, in August (underbelly.co.uk)

The striptease sensation

Miss Polly Rae 29

"My Hurly Burly Show is a burlesque-cabaret show. Burlesque is from the 1940s, when it was striptease – but more tease than reveal, and very much about the parody, fun and theatricality.My show is inspired by burlesque, so it is sexy, it is erotic, but it's also funny.

"Our director, William Baker, has a pop background – he's famous for working with Kylie Minogue – and the music we use is reinterpretations of songs that exist such as 'Bad'. It's mainstream sexy, saucy entertainment – but it's tasteful, not sleazy. I front the show as a singer, and there's seven hurly-burly girlies. And you interact with the audience, which is a hat-tip to cabaret.

"I had been working as a make-up artist, but always wanted to be a performer. I did a burlesque class and for me it was perfect, as there are no rules. I put together a little troupe of girls, we put on a little show in 2006 at the Soho Revue Bar and it's just grown from there. We've just had a run in the West End – it's like I'm dreaming.

"People are a bit more daring now, wanting to experience new things – and in the bad times, people want to have fun. Cabaret is great because it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it also mocks society.

"Miss Polly Rae is me, Polly Rae, showing off, basically. Every cabaret artist creates their character themselves, so there's always going to be that truth, that authenticity."

Polly Rae's show (misspollyrae.com) is back next year

The vaudevillian frontman

Martyn Jacques 52

"I wanted to become very famous and very rich, and was very much influenced by people such as Jacques Brel – that emotional delivery – and very much interested in The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill. So I got an accordion and thought I'd make music that was original and sing in a high voice and everybody would love it. But I've been on the road for 22 years and I'm still not a star!

"I have mixed feelings about the cabaret scene – it's nice when you're 52 to be part of something fashionable, so I'm pleased in a way. As the Tiger Lillies [a post-punk band whose music is a mixture of pre-war Berlin cabaret, anarchic opera and gypsy music] we do have young people come see us wearing bowler hats and basques – we get a kind of cabaret and burlesque fan. But at the same time I've always been interested in being original, unique; being an artist, really. So in a way, being part of a scene is the opposite of what I'm about.

"We're better known in Eastern Europe and Greece. Promoters in some countries try to sell us as a gypsy-rock act; elsewhere we'll be sold as a cabaret band. The reality is, people are trying to make money, and I'm quite sympathetic to promoters. It's the same with cabaret in London: if people want to make a little bandwagon, and that helps the Tiger Lillies, I don't have a problem."

The Tiger Lillies are at the Soho Theatre, London W1(sohotheatre.com), from 18 July to 5 August

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