The Cabaret Revival (Reprise)

It's Here, It's Queer, Get Used to It

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 29 Sep 2011

The surprise at cabaret's revival seems to have lasted a decade: newspapers were still talking about it in 2010, even though its earliest manifestation had been in the late twentieth century, and artists like Dusty Limits had refined their work into a sophisticated fusion of styles and influences. The much-heralded new Cabaret section in the Fringe brochure was not so much a sign of resurgence but a statement of maturity: the shifting fashions of Edinburgh’s annual cultural blow-out saw one artist, Miaow Miaow, graduate to the International Festival while the growth came from artists like Limits, Camille O’Sullivan or Le Gateau Chocolat, who stepped out from the variety line-ups to develop solo shows of powerful theatricality.

 At the same time, burlesque was no longer the ultimate definition of cabaret. While shows like Comic Strip or Kitty Cointreau’s Brahaha affirmed that there was still an audience for striptease, more inclusive formats, as in Itsy’s Kabarett or Blonde Ambition’s Vive Le Cabaret flourished. Against this context, Rhymes with Purple’s decision to stage the second Glasgow Cabaret Festival this October is both timely and visionary.

 “We had a very strong curatorial vision, the cornerstone of that being a commitment to quality and the desire to present something diverse and different,” affirms director Louise Oliver. “Because cabaret is starting to embrace its inherent theatricality, and more high quality artists define themselves using the term cabaret, the industry is starting to sit up and take notice.”

The Glasgow Cabaret Festival itself has captured some of those artists: Scotland’s own Creative Martyrs reprise their Free Fringe hit, Tales From a Cabaret, and pop iconoclasts Frisky and Mannish are heading north to wow audiences with their ironic take on pop celebrity. The Pavilion hosts an all-star touring cabaret, hosted by burlesque radical Kiki KaBoom – her chavette striptease is intelligent and provocative. If the term cabaret is itself hard to define – it is often conflated with vaudeville and variety, or even burlesque – it gives artists a creative freedom to mix and match genres.

“One thing we wanted to achieve was a selection of shows with narrative, that were theatrical in their approach but by preferred definition are cabaret,” Oliver continues.  “I think we have achieved that with The Creative Martyrs, Once Bitten and After Hours at the End of Time, which all use overlapping disciplines in their creation. These shows mix music, comedy, storytelling and elements of variety to create a finished theatrical product.”  

Across the GCF, the full range of possibilities is explored. Des O’Connor, best known as a cheeky, ukulele-wielding compere, is bringing his new, more experimental work Once Bitten; Piff the Magic Dragon has an hour long show of his self-deprecating magic. Since Rhymes with Purple are as much a theatre company as a cabaret promoter – they staged the disturbing study of water-boarding in 2010’s Mayfesto at the Tron – they are in the perfect position to identify and advocate the new wave of acts.

“From the Tron including Dr Sketchy (the burlesque art session) as a regular feature in its programme to the Soho Theatre in London opening up a dedicated cabaret space, cabaret is carving out a legitimate space for itself in the more 'high brow' cultural landscape,” Oliver says.  “I hope that the Cabaret Festival can be a spearhead for that attitude in Scotland: this time next year there will be a Creative Scotland logo on our promotional material!”

Blonde Ambition, who were crucial in the reinvention of cabaret as a glamorous, high quality variety bill, have two entries in this year’s festival. A reprise of Vive Le Cabaret gives the West Coast a chance to sample the show that has, for two years, been a flagship of the Fringe.

Vive takes its cues both from the British vaudeville movement and the French tradition of polished erotica. Dance company Hustle provide a touch of jazz sensuality, while the introduction of classical showgirls round out host Des O’Connor’s ironic schmaltz. During the Fringe, Blonde Ambition scoured Edinburgh to discover comedians, acrobats and burlesque performers to match the brilliance of their core cast, which included Edinburgh’s Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure, who are often credited with beginning the burlesque rival north of the border.

O’Connor has been crucial to Vive’s success. Equally capable of singing the most obscene lyric with a carefree charm and sudden dark satire, his vision of cabaret is both subversive and innocent: he acts as the boy spotting the Emperor’s New Clothes and deftly cuts beneath prudery and decadence with ease. As compere, he pulls together the hidden connections between the turns, be they Amanda Palmer in her downbeat mode or the spectacular Ed Muir, a Diet Coke advert given life.

Rhymes with Purple are not the only company to have noticed the cultural shift. When Dusty Limits first started making the connection between the Weimar Republic and contemporary politics, the link between the political and the theatrical was affirmed. Recently, 7:84 and Wildcat, two vociferously engaged old school Glasgow crews, made a comeback in a variety format and former members of Benchtours have evolved into The Occasional Cabaret, touring their Apocalypse around Scotland. And Glasgay! is offering the Best of Jonny Woo – his stripping guerilla routine has an uncanny soulfulness – Amy Lame’s birthday party for Morrisey and Bourgeois and Maurice. Lame’s Ducky has trod the thin line between Live Art mayhem and kitsch cabaret charm for years in London: the presence of Scottee, Time Out’s performer of the year and a performer who defines the cutting edge, is a reminder of how neo-cabaret is far more than just a gentle reinvention of the old TV variety format. 

Across in Edinburgh Missy Malone and Friends Burlesque Review’s Halloween special is a strong example of how neo-burlesque is increasingly standing alone beyond variety bills. Malone herself is one of the scene’s most dynamic performers. “Burlesque is my passion and my life,” she says. “I put a lot of time, effort and money into my performances and I am very self critical. I think the quality of your performances is the only thing that will sustain your success.”   

One night that undoubtedly fuelled Scotland’s home scene was Kabarett. Curated by the Itsy Collective, it has lined a typically idiosyncratic bill to celebrate its third birthday at the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh’s spiritual home of cabaret. Matching local acrobats with a street brass band and a headline turn from Fusion belly dancer and sword swinger Leah Debrincat, Kabarett is always an unpredictable, dynamic fusion of forms. The inclusion of the Creative Martyrs – who also turn up in the Cabaret Festival edition of The Gatsby Club – reminds how Kabarett has always walked on the darker side of the street. 

The Glasgow Cabaret Festival is all-embracing, and provides a sure snapshot of the state of the art. From sexy glamour to the dark corners of satire, the idea of cabaret being the poor cousin of performance is already an outdated and facile notion, just like the next article on the revival.


Tease Art Exhibition (The Virginia Galleries) Fiona Wilson and Friends paint, photograph and sculpt responses to the business of the show, featuring images both erotic and confrontational.

Rayguns Look Real Enough (Art Club) Unhinged rock'n'roll duo try to piece together what went so wrong that they lost the flunkies and ended up on the variety circuit. Like Amanda Palmer, they might be looking for something in cabaret that a world stadium tour just can't provide.

After Hours at the End of Time (Tron, Victoria Bar) Tribute to Tom Waits, both through his songs and the atmosphere that he conjures through them. 

The Best of Jonny Woo (The Arches) Proving drag can be a great deal more than ironic posing, Woo goes wild with his favourite characters. A one many show of far too many dangerous personalities.

Matsuda Cabaret (Rio Cafe) Regulars from Spangled Cabaret, including Scunner and Peggy Lee team up with Thomas Truax to reveal how musical variety need not mean Perry Como.