Variety: The spice of life

Though the costumes are still gaudy, the corny gags and old-hat magic have vanished as entertainment from the old school returns
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The Independent Culture

Variety – once a term of abuse for naff entertainers such as ventriloquists, quick-fire comics and plate-spinners, long since exiled to cruise liners – is back.

A new generation of young acts is putting a new spin on age-old skills and enjoying new popularity with young, hip audiences, as are old troupers such as comedian Nicholas Parsons. Acrobats, contortionists and crooners are all in vogue, their turns infused with 21st-century wit and sex.

Raymond's Revue bar, the famous, once infamous, venue in Soho, central London, is set to reopen in its original building with a strong emphasis on variety, and similar shows are increasingly common in the West End. They will form a staple of this month's Brighton Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Festival in August.

Nica Burns, President of the Society of London Theatres, said variety slumped when television killed off the music hall. She added, however, that the days when millions of people would tune in to Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the 1950s and 1960s were on the way back, but with a modern makeover.

"What we're seeing now is young performers put a modern twist on old skills," she said. "It's hip and it's cool, and they've brought the sex back. We've just seen a quick-change artist, Arturo Brachetti, at the Garrick Theatre. There are lots of wonderful acts like that and burlesque is also coming back in a big way. Whereas before there was nowhere for the Russian speciality act to go to, for example, apart from guest slots on TV shows, now they can go in a proper show.

"Britain's Got Talent has certainly widened the audience."

Performers also point to the variety show La Clique, which includes contortionists, magicians and a roller- skating double act. Last year a nine-month run in the West End sold out, proving the viability of variety on a big stage. The show also won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, following its run in at the Hippodrome.

The Freerange venue at Brighton's Fringe Festival last week hosted acts as diverse as Nicholas Parsons, an "extreme comedy" night hosted by comedian Frank Sanazi, and "sexy magician Ali Cook". Its producer, Robin Collings, who also runs the Shangri-La Field at Glastonbury Festival, said that specialist acts "are becoming part of ensembles".

The growing popularity of variety is not restricted to the metropolitan chattering classes, however. Pundits use as evidence the success of the UK's biggest television show, Britain's Got Talent. Last night, around 10 million people were expected to watch. Last year's final was by far the most watched television show of 2009 – 18 million people tuned in to see dance troupe Diversity beat the Scottish singer Susan Boyle.

The live tour of the show, in which the finalists perform at theatres up and down the country, from Sheffield to Belfast to Cardiff, is often sold out.

More traditional acts will perform in the Best of Britain Variety Tour, now in its third year, which will play 14 venues from Huddersfield to Blackpool during the summer, and features former television mainstays such as magician Paul Daniels, comic duo the Krankies and Eurovision singer Dana.

Miss Behave, a red-PVC clad comedian who specialises in sword-swallowing, has appeared in La Clique, as well as in her own show at the Roundhouse, in Camden, north London. She is behind the reincarnation of the Raymond Revue bar, which is due to reopen later this year.

"Variety has a much higher profile now," she said. "I think entertainment works in a cycle, and although a lot of the performers I use have been going for at least 25 years, the zeitgeist now is variety. Youtube is variety. And circus is very hip at the moment."

Britain's Got Talent

Millions are tuning in every week to watch acts including magicians, acrobats, ventriloquists and stand-ups bid to impress Piers Morgan, Amanda Holden and Simon Cowell.

Frank Sanazi

The "funny Fuhrer" was part of the Brighton Festival Fringe, performing cabaret classics such as "Mein Way". The comedy crooner's back-up comes in the form of The Iraq Pack.

Miss Behave

Catch the PVC-clad star, whose routine features sword swallowing and some interesting tongue contortions, at this summer's Glastonbury and Latitude festivals.

Ali Cook

His pioneering alternative magic has earned the illusionist gigs at Harry Potter film premiere parties, and seven television series, including Channel 4's Dirty Tricks.

La Clique - Marawa

The queen of hula hoop wowed London audiences when cabaret, variety and burlesque show La Clique picked up the 2009 Olivier award for best entertainment. She's a whiz at skating too.

Nicholas Parsons

A veteran of light entertainment, the versatile actor boasts an impressive pedigree in comedy and cruise ship performance. After 42 years, his Radio 4 panel show Just A Minute is ever-popular.

Arturo Brachetti

The Italian master of quick-change, who has captivated more than a million people across the globe, bamboozled West End audiences last year with his eye-catching costumes and intriguing illusions.