Glam rocks: Meet the stars who are taking cabaret mainstream

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links