Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Perry Como your hour has come again. The fashionable almost-young are going unaccountably soft. One hears a strange noise in the night and it certainly isn't techno. Report by Rosie Millard. Photographs by David Gamble
Welcome to Lenny Beige and his "Regency Rooms" supper cabaret club at The Talk of London, a tarty-looking venue behind the theatre showing Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. It was clearly christened by a practical joker. Suffice it to say it is anything but the capital's conversation piece. Drapes cascade from a plastic bannister over a Seventies-style carpet. Ghastly lampshades ornament even worse looking light fittings. The ashtrays are large, dodecahedronal and made of smoked glass; the Ladies is decorated with large silvery pansies. But in the inverse logic of the fashionable, this is exactly the point. Forget Conran's jazzy colours and Deco-inspired curves. This is where it's at.
The Regency Rooms evening consists of two hours of entertainment; live music from the Fifties and Sixties interspersed by quizzes and student- type revue sketches, while the audience sit at tables listening, drinking beer and eating burgers with baked potatoes. Cigarette girls wander rather aimlessly about. "Black Sobranie?" says one. "Don't smoke? Well, you can just hold it if you want."
In a corner, two young men are being stuffed into jackets, "We have about 20 of these in stock. They're all from Oxfam," whispers the cloakroom attendant. "Men have to wear jackets and ties, but sometimes we have to help them out. They always choose the most disgusting checked ones."
Thirty dining tables are arranged on the dance floor, over which looms a large stage. Tuxedoed waiters glide around the tables bringing food and drink. The scene is reminiscent of a rather naff casino episode in an early James Bond film. "But absolutely!" says a woman in her early twenties, eating chips and wearing a black choker. "I feel like I'm in a film! It makes me feel so glamorous. It's old-fashioned, but you know what?" She turns to me and bats blue pearlised eyelids. "It's so new!"
Lenny Beige, aka Steve Furst, a 28-year-old Londoner, is the inventor of the eponymous evening. "I used to love watching old films with cabaret clubs and swanky people in them," he reveals. So he set about creating one. With finances gathered from working as a stand-up comic, he opened the 66 in Soho two years ago, where the attraction was playing board games such as Buckaroo, Monopoly and Twister to a background of, yes, easy listening music. A scene was born.
From there, reincarnation as Lenny Beige was but a brief step. But he is not alone. From the mecca of MOR music, Indigo at Madame Jo-Jo's in Soho, which puts out a solid stream of Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini every Tuesday night, to Camden's Blow-Up or Regent Street's Cheese, there is now a formidable advance of the flowered shirts against anything invented or released since Lady Di married Prince Charles.
Indeed, this Christmas saw the pop charts stormed by the Mike Flowers Pops and their easy-listening take on the Oasis hit "Wonderwall". When a Radio 1 DJ appeared on the news explaining that Mr Flowers, with his wide tie, and synthetic smile, was not cheesy, just easy, it was clear something was up in the mainstream.
Tonight, Beige is on stage with his backing band, Bon Tempi. His wig is matt black, its quiff stiffly resistant to his theatrical gyrations. He is sporting a bright blue frilly shirt in whose ruffles sparkles a Top of the Pops medallion and singing, not very well, a bizarre song about the daytime television presenter Richard Madeley. It's going down a storm. "Aaaannnnd!!!! Nowww!" he suddenly shouts, in a hoarse salute to the Johnny Carson school of showbiz announcements, "I, Lenny Beige, from the Beige Foundation, present Steeeeve Dawson."
Dawson leaps on stage as the ruched Lurex curtain drops over Bon Tempi, instantly rendering them as guitar-playing silhouettes with huge collars and flares. The illusion is complete. "I've got yoo-hoo," sings Steve Dawson, "huh-huh-hunder my skin!" He expertly flicks the microphone lead behind his leg with his left ankle and does a soft-shoe around the dance floor. The woman with blue eyeshadow gives a soft cry. "Sing to the audience," she says weakly. And he does.
After Steve Dawson's Frankie act comes Alphonse Beige, who does a number from Phantom of the Opera. Then comes a mime act "from Norway", and a Bearded Lady doing the "Bearded Dance". Then Lenny comes back, to croon "I'll Never Fall In Love Again".
The audience find it all excitingly radical. "We usually go clubbing or hang out with friends," says Ed, a 22-year- old graphic design student. Ed and his mate Nick, a film-maker, are both wearing complimentary check jackets. "This is interesting, it's different," says Ed. "Seeing live performances, and getting all dressed up like this. My parents would be happy to see me here. Particularly as I'm wearing a tie." Nick nods his head. "My parents would quite like it here," he shouts over the strains of Dawson warbling "The Lady is a Tramp".
"I used to like all my mum's music," says Karen, a 33-year-old social services adviser. Karen is wearing a feather boa and a long dress; her boyfriend Richard is in a wig and stick-on sideboards. "People take clubbing so seriously, it's nice to go somewhere where it's all a bit of a laugh." She leans over confidentially. "It's our anniversary, two years today. When I first met Richard he was wearing the same wig and sideboards. Spooky, isn't it?" Richard grins inanely.
Lenny Beige, whose energy appears to waver as infrequently as his wig, is still on stage, leaping around singing a number whose chorus appears to be "I like girls in beige bikinis!"
Sitting at a table by the stage is David, 24, owner of Cheese, who explains that his club is full of young professionals who want to be thought of as with-it but are too exhausted to cope with queueing up all night to get into a club. Leave that to the teenagers.
"They work so hard during the week," says David, "they just want to sit around and chat, and listen to nice, tuneful music. Stuff that your parents liked but you couldn't quite admit to liking." So this is no joke? People are into this stuff seriously? Frank Sinatra? Phantom of the Opera? A sort of superficial irony underneath which is a real regard for the hits and hit makers of the Des O'Connor Show? David nods his head. "Oh yes, yes. We're all just growing up. We're the kids of the Baby Boomers, becoming Baby Boomers ourselves."
Perhaps it is just a reaction against dance culture, wherein anything which does not involve 3,000 people dancing in a warehouse is regarded as wildly new; even if older generations would spot it a mile off as extraordinarily familiar. Like sitting down to live entertainment. The whole concept has a mad logic. "Anything I can do to get people sitting down and talking, as an alternative to the rave scene, is good," says Lenny Beige. "Clubs are not intimate. You get a bit old for them."
Lenny Beige & The Regency Rooms are back at the The Talk of London, Drury Lane, London WC1, 0171-262 0629 from the beginning of February
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