Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Just Be Yourself"

When I was little my mum always used to dole out the same piece of advice whenever I was stressing about something I had to do in front of people: Just be yourself. As soon as I would hear this I would be crippled by anxiety: I didn't know how to do that because I didn't know who 'myself' was. My mum was always baffled by her strange, apparently alien, daughter, who seemed to be making a meal out of what to her was the most basic and fundamental of tasks. Why couldn't I just walk into a room like a 'normal' person without twitching obsessively at my clothes and shrinking into myself, or talking in a weird put-on voice and using words that I didn't really understand the meaning of? Admittedly my mum snapping at me "everybody's noticing you fidgeting with your dress like that" did not make matters any better, although in retrospect I can see that all she was trying to do was snap me out of what was, to her, a strange and unhealthy self-consciousness.

I was round at Pete Saunders' place today, rehearsing with him in his shed (don't knock it, he's got a proper studio set up in there, complete with PA system and a Roland keyboard with all the boy-toy piano voices you could ever desire, including a 'scat vocal' one which kept him happily amused for hours today), and when we stopped for lunch we were discussing the things we learn with more years performance experience and I was saying that newer performers are less able to be themselves on stage. Then I realised something: that the quest to learn how to be myself - onstage and therefore consequentially offstage - was probably the drive that started me performing in the first place.

Is it because I didn't know what to do when my mother instructed me to "just be myself" that I became a performer at all?

I suggested to Pete that all performers do it because they are secretly looking for an answer to the question "How do I be myself?" Pete disagreed - he said that the thing that probably drove him into performing when he was a teenager was a desire to escape the need to answer the question "Who am I?" altogether.

So there you have it. The difference between male and female performers. And/or possibly the difference between males and females full stop. The girls are looking for an answer to the question "who am I?" and the boys are looking for a way to avoid ever having to answer it.

Deep. (Or possibly not.)


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I just can’t get you outta my head you b***ard

Just got back home from a rehearsal with the band in the Cellar of Joy and I'm a bit pissed, as I took along a bottle of finest South African Sabernet Cauvignon from Lidl (only £2.99 because of the typo on the label). I've just had a lovely evening playing through our set for tomorrow's gig at Volupte, and I must say I thought we sounded better and better as the evening went on and I got through more and more of the bottle. Even though our new bass player Warwick "the thumb" Johnson didn't make it. He rang up to explain he was trapped because he lives in Finsbury Park and there was an Arsenal match on which meant that he couldn't drive in or out of his street without sitting in a queue of traffic for an hour. He told me very apologetically he'd had no idea there was a match on tonight when we booked the rehearsal.

It was only when I got to the rehearsal and passed on this news that Sir Fitzroy informed me that The Thumb is a massive Spurs fan, and Spurs just happen to be playing Arsenal tonight. I was shocked - surely you don't mean he might be watching the match? Fitz, who is also an ardent Spurs fan, just raised his eyebrows quizzically. But I wouldn't think that of The Thumb for a moment, as Spurs fans, in my experience, are men of honour. I know absolutely nothing about football, but my dad is a Spurs fan, and of course he is the man my heart belongs to, and what's more I have been dumped by not one but two avid Arsenal fans, so I know which team I'll be offering my services to should they ever require a jazz singer at any point to do a spot of scatting for morale purposes.

Tonight we were determined to break the mould of Slinktet rehearsals and bash through the set list in an efficient and focused manner instead of pissing about and telling bizarre anecdotes. We were doing fairly well until Connie Vanderlay came up with the game of putting "you b***ard" after every one of our song titles:

Peel Me A Grape You B***ard
Should I Stay Or Should I Go You B***ard
Why Don't You Do Right You B***ard
Sweet Dreams You B***ard

and so on.

Then Fitz started an anecdote about a trombone quartet him and his mates once decided to form called "The B***ards" (pronounced to rhyme with cards or shards) because they were always calling each other b***ard. I was unable to ascertain whether this level of rudeness is exclusive to trombonists or applies to all brass players. (Maybe they should form a group called The Brasstards.) This prompted our arch anecdotalist Earl Mysterio to remember a story about an elderly waiting punter telling the man next to him how much better it was using a ticketing system rather than having to queue - because some "cheeky bitches" had pushed in front of him in a queue the day before, so he'd spat on them, so they'd called him a "b***ard", so he'd asked them if they had any evidence that they'd been born in wedlock themselves.

By this point the conversation had moved a very long way away from what we were supposed to be talking about, which was whether the stabs were on the beat or ahead of the beat in My Side of the Bed. Miraculously however we did manage to get through the whole set by quarter to ten and hit the road. I left the last glass of wine for Mysterio so I could cadge a lift home with Connie, who has just dropped me to my door because it was cold out and she is an angel.

Do you know, this band has been together for four and a half years now and I still love hanging out with them - in fact I love hanging out with them more than ever. Rehearsals are getting to be one of my favourite things, even when they're conducted in a subterranean cellar with no heating and walls that shed chalky white deposits on your clothes - because when I'm at a gig I'm running around looking after the guest acts, or chatting to the audience, and I don't actually get any time with the other slinkers. But when we're rehearsing I get to be entertained by Mysterio's frankly surreal stream-of-consciousness stories, and Fresh's bon mots from behind the drums, and I get to actually look at my fellow slinkers instead of having my back to them the whole time like I do at a gig. And I even get to sit down.

You lovely lot, you were sounding well groovy tonight. And that's not just the Sabernet Cauvignon talking


Monday, October 27, 2008

Nights at the Office

I love my job. Because the place everyone else goes to get away from the stresses and strains of their job is actually the place I go to work. Which means my office is basically a cabaret club. And the things that are glamorous and escapist for the punters become my routine – it’s like everything’s flipped upside down. Now I’m gigging more often I’m generally at Volupte once or twice a week, and, as always happens once something starts to become more regular, patterns and rhythms begin to establish themselves. Here are some of the ritual patterns of a typical ‘night at the office’.

There’s the meet-and-greet/soundcheck when everyone arrives dragging their gig bags on wheels, and we somehow manage to squeeze in a brief discussion about what numbers we’re going to do in between the conversations about who’s got a new coat and where it’s from (Amber Topaz wouldn’t tell me, to my frustration, even though hers is a one off anyway, so there is no danger of me turning up in a copycat green wool trench) and who’s in what state after last night and why (this conversation also includes the club staff as a rule, who are much more dedicated partygoers than us lightweight performers). Some people take the sound check more seriously than others. Amber’s is like a whole extra floorshow on top of the one she gives for the punters. Yesterday the band were running through “hot stuff”, which Beverley had just rehearsed with them, unbeknownst to Amber, and Amber jumped on the mic and started singing “I want some hot stuff baby tonight” in a broad Yorkshire accent. Beverley’s little face fell: “I’m not going to be able to sing that seriously now.” But she pulled it out of the hat for the show.

Next come the dressing room rituals, involving claiming your bit of mirror and starting work on the make up, with accompanying ‘make up chitchat’ which can cover everything from the current economic climate to who would and who wouldn’t shag Beth Ditto. There’s generally some issue or other with nipple tassels, or pasties (not pronounced the Cornish way, incidentally – I remember being sternly corrected on that point by Gwendoline Lamour). Yesterday the issue was two burlesquers with the same set of black tassels. It’s bad form for two girls to go out wearing the same pasties, apparently – so one party nobly agreed to wear her Swarovski crystal ones instead, even though they were heavier and harder to twirl. Incidentally, I also learned that Anne Summers’ black nipple tassels are very hardwearing and an excellent buy, but the pastel coloured ones are rubbish as they shed diamante – so don’t buy those (in case you were planning to).

Then there’s the arrival of the wine, which is always a high point. It’s generally delivered to the dressing room with a great flourish by the manager and met with squeals of appreciation. There’s always somebody who insists they won’t have any, then changes their mind as soon as it’s in front of them. Everybody has their foibles about what they need to drink before they go on. I have this neurotic need to down loads and loads of water which annoys the staff while they’re trying to set up because I’m always nicking water out of the jugs they’ve got ready for the customers, or helping myself from the tap behind the bar which is meant to be out of bounds to performers. Dusty Limits will only drink white wine before he performs, because red wine is too heavy and clogs him up. I’d been on the red wine before I went on the other day and I noticed it had given me purple teeth – but Dusty told me if I drank enough white wine it would cancel it out. So I did. It’s always a pleasure to discover new excuses for drinking more alcohol.

Another favourite part of the routine is the bit where you get your dinner. It’s always a lottery, what the staff food is going to be, but on a good day it’ll be something fabulous like stuffed chicken breast and dauphinois potatoes. Sometimes it can look a bit weird, like the pumpkin lasagne, but it’s important to keep an open mind until you’ve tasted it. The girls all flirt outrageously with the chefs (and so do some of the boys) so they’ll feed us extra treats. I got a secret rum cheesecake all to myself the other day. I do think that giving people free food is one of the nicest things you can do for anyone – but especially for hand-to-mouth types like musicians and performers, who will generally spend their hard earned gig money on drink rather than waste it on a proper dinner. At least somebody’s looking out for us to make sure we get a square meal.

Then comes the show itself, when you’ll step onstage and do exactly the same material you did at the last show and it will somehow weirdly come out completely different - because it’s the audience who give every show its own vibe. Another big part of the routine is a backstage discussion about the nature of the audience. Small but lively? Packed out but really flat? Into it but drunk and noisy? Polite but a bit on the quiet side? Or totally loving it? The quieter the audience, the harder work it is to win over the room – I’ve seen performers come off stage dripping with sweat and shaking from the effort of exuding energy. Sometimes you can really feel like it’s been a damp squib, only to have people from the audience coming up afterwards saying what a fantastic show it was and how they were completely blown away. They were just being blown away quietly. One of the great things about doing Pete Saunders’ Burlesque’n’Blues shows is that we do everything with a live band – singers and burlesquers alike – and there’s always something ad libbed and impromptu, or some collaboration, rather than everybody just doing their own thing one after the other. I had to get singer Buck Svizz on stage to be my stooge for my song “Sneaky” once because there wasn’t a single man in the audience (it was Saturday afternoon tea – which is hen city), and he walked onstage still eating a scone. There happened to be a line in the song that went “and what is the occasion that has merited you giving me these flowers – and cake?” and on that line Buck started pelting me with bits of scone. Brilliant. It was like the whole thing with the cake was a set up ready for that line, when he didn’t even know it was coming. This week the impromptu moment was an on-the-spot ensemble rendition of Hit The Road Jack as the finale. We had three girls around the mic belting it out, and even made up a dance routine. I’m not sure what the audience made of it - but we enjoyed ourselves.

The other ritual element to every gig is the storytelling. An old flame once told me that artists are longer lived than everyone else, not because they live more years, but because they pack more experience into their lives (he was speaking with authority as an accountant). But it’s not only the actual lived experiences us arty types pack in, it’s all the imagined ones as well – and all the ones we collect from each other in the form of pre and post gig anecdotes. These anecdotes are an integral part of the gig routine, mainly because, as a famous musician once said, performing is about 10% stage time and 90% waiting around. (This quote was offered up by the Slinktet’s guitar supremo Earl Mysterio as an anecdote to fill our own waiting around time before a gig. I now can’t remember who the famous musician was, which is a bit rubbish. Probably someone from a cool boy’s band, like The Rolling Stones or something.) The function of gig storytelling is thus to fill the waiting around percentage of the evening. The stories can be about anything, but ideally, they will reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets or describe a shocking and extreme experience that happened to either the storyteller or their ‘friend’.

My ‘day job’ is meant to be writing stories, but I have to admit that time after time my feeble attempts at anecdotage pale in comparison to those offered up by my colleagues. Pete Saunders, being slightly longer lived than the rest of us (strictly in the ‘artist’ sense outlined above, of course), has some of the best. I talked about the time I wrote off my car skidding on an oil spill, and he topped it with the time he rolled his car over three times, miraculously got out, then had to decide whether or not to risk going back to free his girlfriend from the wreckage before the car blew up (he did – because he decided the social embarrassment of leaving her in the lurch outweighed the risk of being burnt to a crisp). I had a story about going to a carol service in Armley Jail when I was a kid which Vicious Delicious topped with a story about how she used to rent a flat in the Brixton prison complex with windows overlooked by all the prison cells, and got treated to a running commentary on everything she did in her flat from the prisoners. I also enjoyed the stories about what bored musicians get up to on the big musicals, after they’ve been performing exactly the same score, note for note, for a year. The entire orchestra playing a whole show naked on the last night of the run was my favourite.

I’m back at Volupte twice next week – on Tuesday for the Lost Supper, and on Thursday for Club d’Amour – which means more treats. If I’m lucky, another chocolate cheese cake. And if I’m really lucky, some even more outrageous gig anecdotes to add to my collection. Plus, I’ll get to wear my gorgeous new black and white gown as well, which is a bit like getting to wear your wedding dress twice in one week. As jobs go, it’s not bad, is it?


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Field Report

Okay so it’s well over a month since I got back from my last festival, but since the photos from the Bestival antics have only just been posted online I feel both comforted that I am not the only one taking ages to record my summer and also spurred into finally getting around to jotting down a sort of addled postmortem diary of my own various festival misadventures.

I actually blagged like mad to get to go to Camp Bestival, because my brother and sister-in-law were coming over with the kids from France for it and I thought it would be a bit special to meet up with them in a field. The very splendid Zoe of Time for Tease let me come and play her tent, after I nagged both Paul Martin and Kitty Bang Bang to put a word in with her for me. I gave Kitty a lift in my little Nissan micra and we shared my fish tent – we had great plans for a ‘Thelma and Louise’ adventure, which was a bit slow in getting started after I failed to get out of bed in time for that early start I’d been planning, although Kitty seemed strangely relieved to hear I’d be at least an hour late. When I rang her she picked up the phone and went “I’m awake! I’m awake!” which was somewhat suspicious… Then we had to stop en route so Kitty could buy a crate of cider (I’d bought my vodka and Pringles the day before so I was all stocked up with the essentials already). Then we had to turn back when Kitty realised she’d left her mobile phone at home. “If you realise you had it with you all along,” I warned her, as we crawled back through the north London traffic, “don’t tell me.” “I won’t,” she promised. When she bounced back in the car and I asked her where it was, she promised she’d found it by the side of her bed, and looked suitably sincere. Once we got to the actual festival she ran out of credit after the first day, so a fat lot of good it did having her phone with her anyway. She was bouncing off the ceiling with boredom four hours into the car journey, while we were stuck in the queue to get onto the festival site. Two hours to get to Dorset and another two hours to get two miles down a country lane. But we did succeed in erecting our fish tent and inflating our double air mattress with fearsome efficiency, which may have had something to do with the fact it was raining.

The next day Paul L Martin turned up, somewhat anxious because he hadn’t braved a festival since he was seventeen, asking Zoe if her tent was ‘open’ so he could put his bag inside? I explained to him that tents didn’t actually have locks. But he was almost totally converted to the festival experience after learning to knit in the knitting tent, and spending Saturday night dancing on a chair to cheesy disco in the Lauderetta’s travel agency. Meanwhile Kitty and I lost each other on Saturday night and she found herself being ushered onto the mainstage along with Agent Lynch to do backing dancing for the Flaming Lips after she and Agent Lynch wandered backstage looking for a loo. While she was jumping up and down on the mainstage, I was singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ about six times in a row to my two year old nephew in an attempt to encourage him to go to sleep. Instead of which he kept jumping up and shouting “sing it again!” Luckily by then I’d drunk so much vodka I didn’t care how many times I sung it. Unlike everybody in the adjacent tents I suspect. Then again, they were all probably out watching the Flaming Lips – and Kitty’s impromptu backing dancing – on the mainstage.

Sunday afternoon was spent largely showing off for the cameramen who were shooting backstage footage of the Time for Tease tent to pitch an idea for a documentary about burlesque to channel 4. That and eating vast amounts of cake. Oh that Lemon Drizzle cake was incredible. I also remember meeting up with my friend Chris and her two daughters in front of the mainstage, where Kitty and Chris’s eight year old daughter threw each other about and took bizarre photos of people’s feet while Suzanne Vega and Kate Nash represented pan-generational female talent onstage.

Kitty and I had to get up shockingly early on Monday to get Kitty back to London in time to work her shift in the pub, but just as I was getting up at 7.30 on Monday morning I bumped into Jonathan Mayor, an old friend from University now cutting a dash on the Manchester drag scene as a comedian and compere, just as he was returning to his tent to bed. He loudly declaimed his excitement at seeing me, then after about ten minutes of conversation actually realised where he knew me from, which elicited even louder declamations. Gratifyingly, he claimed I hadn’t aged a day and enquired if I had had surgery – I suspect a party-addled 7am perspective is far from the most searingly observant but nevertheless it was charming of him. I’m sure the rest of the campsite were equally delighted to hear our emotional reunion at seven in the morning as well.

All in all, an utterly charming festival. And to cap it all, the Sunday Times Style magazine had a photographer taking pics of everybody which they posted up on the website mocked up as magazine covers. I went to a family party last weekend and was actually congratulated on being on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine. Even though it was completely fake, I still got a kick out of showing it off, especially to my ex, who was the one person I didn’t admit it wasn’t real to.

I’d had so much fun at Camp Bestival that when I got not one but two calls asking if I wanted to come and perform at other festivals I was pretty into the idea, even if I was a bit worried about going on my own, especially to the one in Ireland. Karen the nice lady who invited me to Electric Picnic offered to not only pay my flight but also to send their hire car to pick me up and drive me to the festival site, and to feed me for the three days, so I was almost completely won over - and then ukelele troubadour Des O’Connor encouraged me to go by pointing out it would be an international gig, which meant I’d be able to describe myself as an international cabaret star afterwards – so I said yes. When Amanda from Stranger than Paradise asked me if I wanted to go to Bestival on the Isle of Wight with her I said yes much more quickly, which, in retrospect, was the more foolhardy decision of the two, but more of that later.

Electric Picnic was in a place called Port Laoise west of Dublin, where, my dad tells me, there is also a famous prison (not that I could see it over the ferris wheel). My great uncle, who grew up in Ireland, carefully instructed me how to pronounce the place name properly, which stood me in good stead when I was asking directions to the bus stop at the airport. I managed to my tent up on my own in the dark, and then, just as I was pumping up the air mattress inside, I heard a voice outside saying “We’re coming into your tent”. It turned out some of my fellow festivalgoers were quite taken with the pictures of fish all over it. I told the guy that since he wanted to come in, he could pump up my air mattress while he was there, and he obligingly set to the foot pump while him and his girlfriend chatted about what they’d seen so far, and I fed them Oreo cookies. I was booked to play in a tent called Teas and Tarts by day and Tarts and Tease by night – which transformed from a demure tea shop into a sleazy den of vice complete with an Amsterdam-style red-light-district window complete with pole dancers - but I must admit I was slightly overwhelmed when I realised I was sharing the bill with acrobats, dancers, and huge high-octane bands. My little pink ukelele and I were no match for all that energy. Luckily I persuaded Simon the stage manager to let me go on first on the Saturday night, so at least the show could start small and build up. Oh and it also meant I could go on early and then get pissed of course. At least that was the plan, until I discovered that none of the bars appeared to be serving after 10.30pm. I honestly thought that the notoriously fun-loving Irish festivalgoers had drunk the bars dry – but found out next day that they closed the bars at 10.30pm every night routinely. Weird, since everything went on til 4am. Luckily for me, when I went back to Tarts and Tease and moaned about this sorry state of affairs, Simon said “But you’ve got a rider!” and produced a bottle of champagne. Now that’s what I call a rider. I was over the moon, and even the dire warning that it had cost about 60p from France and was dangerously hallucinogenic stuff didn’t prevent me from pouring almost the entire bottle into a pint glass and toddling off to the mainstage with it to watch George Benson, which was a pretty trippy show anyway, but whether or not that was down to the dodgy French knock-off champagne I couldn’t tell you.

I felt like a proper grown-up festival-goer after managing an international festival all by myself, but I may have patted myself on the back a little to soon. Anyone who was at Bestival this year will know what’s coming. If I hadn’t been booked to perform I would probably have wimped out of going at all when the storm warnings started coming through, but you gotta be a trooper, right? I knew this was going to be a more extreme festival experience from the start, when a black van with black tinted windows pulled up to pick me up. It was like a grown-up version of the Scooby van, with a fur rug and a bead curtain inside, not to mention a vanful of sprawling pissed bodies dressed in fishnet tights, frilly knickers, huge hats, scull-print scarves and all the paraphernalia of hardcore festivalgoers. There was also an animatronic toy cat in there that purred and moved. A bourbon bottle was thrust into my hand the minute I clambered inside. It was about 11 in the morning.

So much fun was had en route to the ferry port that we barely made the ferry by the skin of our teeth for the crossing, which was accompanied by loud tone-deaf singing on deck. By the time we made it to the festival site everyone except the driver was crashed out. Then we discovered that we couldn’t park in the artist’s carpark because it was flooded, and we couldn’t pitch tents in the artists’ camping because that was flooded too. There was some flouncing and stropping about how we were meant to be onstage in an hour so they better let us in, and this miraculously produced artist wristbands and opened the gates onto the main site for us, so we drove right onto the site and parked up behind the show tents. Then all we had to do was lug our stuff – which included 3 giant dogs’ heads - across a vast field of mud to the polka tent, which, as it turned out, was also awash with mud.
I had lugged my full length tasselled evening gown all the way across the field inside my gig bag but as soon as I saw that tiny tent, churned up with mud, and the stage covered with mud, and the back stage tent churned up with mud which was reached only from across a sea of mud my bottom lip started to quiver and I begged Amanda to please not make me dress up because I couldn’t wash or dry clean my gown without the tassels wrinkling up so if I got it muddy it would be lost to me forever. Amanda said she didn’t care what I wore onstage and told me to relax. Then we found a tiny unlit backstage tent behind the polka tent, and I started to put my make up on by torchlight. As soon as I’d finished, the stage manager came to tell us that there was another much bigger backstage tent with electric lighting in it on the other side of the Polka tent – but by that time I had switched into proper ‘trooper’ mode. I went onstage and led a drunken ukelele singalong starting with ‘Mud mud glorious mud’, encompassing most of the Jungle Book and concluding with Downtown, before conceding the stage to the real bands, and availing myself of the free rider, which was beer not champagne this time. Our strategy was to get drunk enough to stop caring about the sea of mud everywhere, which seemed to work, except that I still had to put my fish tent up. I managed it at 3 in the morning, but forgot about the air mattress, so I had to come back and pump that up at 4 in the morning. By 5 in the morning there were 3 of us crashed out in it, although fortunately the giant dog heads were left outside.

The next day while I was exploring the site (slowly, as the mud was by then getting to that ‘hold on to your welly and pull it off your foot’ stage) I noticed a security guard taking photos of the festivalgoers walking past on his mobile phone. I asked him what he was taking pictures of, and he explained it was of the sight of all these people walking around in the mud apparently having a good time, because he’d never seen anything like it. In his country (Nigeria) this would be viewed as a natural disaster. Nothing would grow on this land for a year. Had these people really paid to do this? Could I explain why this was fun?

By the time I got my fish tent home it was caked in mud, so I took it to the launderette and paid £6.50 for the giant washer. Then when I pulled it out, it flooded the floor of the launderette with water (which made me popular) so I bunged it in the dryer and shoved a pound in, because I couldn’t think of another way to get it dry with no washing line to hang it up from. When I pulled it out of the dryer the groundsheet had shrivelled up to half its former size and formed strange solid clumps of plastic, which were never going to resemble anything tent-shaped ever again. Yes, I had melted my tent.

I could see this as a sign that I should quit festival-going now, before it gets any worse. Or as an opportunity to buy an even more fabulous-looking tent for next year’s adventures.

I might not be able to explain to a baffled Nigerian security guard why it was fun, but something tells me that if anybody invites me to a festival again next year I’ll say yes like a shot. I haven’t been to Latitude yet. And then, there’s the really big one… Glastonbury. I mean, after Bestival, how disastrous can it be…?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Edinburgh Water

It was the first year I’d braved Edinburgh as a performer since a rather dubious production I was in while I was at university, which has pretty much scarred me for life, but luckily for me, lightweight that I am, one of my oldest and closest friends happens to live in Edinburgh in a flat right on the Royal Mile, so my Edinburgh experience was downright cushy. Except for his kitten, Plug, who if she didn’t get enough attention would launch herself at my leg and cling on to my tights with her claws until I picked her up and stroked her (I’m thinking of adopting this strategy myself in future). So I’ve come home scarred from this Edinburgh experience too, but luckily only literally.

Walking through a torrential downpour to the Underbelly at midnight on my first night to appear in Sideshow, the Bloody Ringmaster’s late-night cabaret, I did wonder how much fun this was actually going to be, especially when I saw the water pouring through the brickwork into the building making the venue look like nothing so much as a medieval torture chamber. There were a couple of guys busking on the street under an archway on Cowgate with a double bass and a guitar. When I came out of the Underbelly after the show, two and a half hours later, they were still there, just packing up their instruments. That’s what I call a stoic performance. My own performance that night was to four people, which meant that when I got one of them up on stage to play the kazoo I actually lost a quarter of my audience. But size isn’t everything and all four of them were delightfully friendly. It was lovely to hang out with Lambchop Magoo, Chrysalis, Margaret the Gimp and the Bloody Ringmaster too – in fact the whole thing was rather cosy, despite the water running down the walls. The Bloody Ringmaster sniffed out the fact that one of our four audience members was in fact a reviewer – thanks to his built in reviewer-dar – so we all fell upon the poor guy oozing charm.

The next day I had planned to see the Bloody Ringmaster in his other play, in which he skipped across the stage in a nightie while someone played the mandolin, but I overslept and missed it. Then I decided to stay in bed and read a book called ‘The Secret Countess’ all day because the rain wasn’t showing any signs of abating, and I needed to know whether the beautiful but penniless Russian aristocrat of the title was going to end up with the young English lord more than I needed to find out what was going on outside in the rain.

That night my lovely Royal Mile Boy and his friend came to the show too, providing us with a third of our audience, which had now swelled to six. Royal Mile Boy volunteered to be my stooge and came up on stage to play the kazoo, but unlike every other audience member I’ve ever picked on before, completely failed to figure out how to get it to work – this must be some sort of Sods Law of Best Mates. To make things even more eggy, a pianist colleague who was in the audience strode onto the stage to show him how to do it, and gave an impressive performance on the kazoo which had no comedy value whatsoever and provided no closure for the little story we were telling about how someone could miraculously master an instrument in just a few moments. So I had to wrench the kazoo from my rather miffed colleague’s grasp and return it to my friend, who I would not allow to leave the stage until he had mastered it. Thankfully he did, leaving all of us feeling rather drained by the experience, which had somehow metamorphosed from a cabaret show into a music lesson.

Fortunately the reviewer who was in the audience, yet again sniffed out by the Bloody Ringmaster, was more excited about the prospect of getting a ukelele lesson off me at the end of the show. And by the time we had all been drinking for four more hours the whole thing was no more than a distant unpleasant memory. What’s more the rain had finally stopped, which suddenly made the prospect of staying out drinking more appealing, so much so that I succeeded in drinking till dawn, after making longsuffering Royal Mile Boy carry my gown and ukelele home for me while I careered off into the night in one of those rickshaws like you get in Soho, which in Edinburgh can actually climb steep hills with two girls in the back. I even managed to carry a full pint in a plastic glass for the whole journey without spilling a drop. That’s some impressive back-seat cycling skills, that is. Walking home at dawn along North Bridge my drinking partner and I encountered a charming local lady who was in extremely good voice as she serenaded us with her rendition of a traditional Scottish ballad. The next morning, unsurprisingly, I missed the Bloody Ringmaster’s play for a second time.

Friday saw me staggering up the Royal Mile with a hangover, cunningly fending off the thousands of flyering performers by clutching flyers for our own show in my hand (I appreciate this was not actually the purpose of giving me the flyers, and apologise in retrospect to the Bloody Ringmaster). It was quite overwhelming. But we found an Italian restaurant to eat lunch in, and I started to feel ready for the Fringe again after a few carbs. And just at that moment who should sashay past our outdoor table on the Grassmarket but Miss Ophelia Bitz in a fetching sequinned beret. She very generously offered me and my friend two guestlist tickets to the Tiger Lillies’ Seven Deadly Sins in the Spiegeltent, which was a riproaring hour’s entertainment.

When I congratulated Miss Bitz afterwards she revealed that from their point of view it had been a nightmare because somebody in the audience had stolen a prop. I had thought the whole baby-theft incident was part of the show, so cleverly had they covered it, which just goes to show how different a performance looks from the other side of the stage. Another unexpected discovery of Saturday was how great Edinburgh water is for washing your hair in. My bob came out all shiny and sleek. I take back all those negative remarks about Edinburgh and water – I love it after all. That night, my last on Sideshow, we had an impressive audience of ten, and my kazoo stooge was a gorgeous American boy who revealed after the show that he was actually playing the part of one of the Columbine murderers by day. So I unwittingly had a murderer on my kazoo for the night. We followed the show with another impressive night’s drinking til dawn. On Saturday I missed the Bloody Ringmaster’s play for the third time.

Saturday night I moved onto my next show, And The Devil May Drag You Under in Musical Theatre @ George Square, and suddenly hit the big league. I arrived to discover a two-hundred-seater auditorium with proper wings, spotlights, the lot. If it weren’t for the warm and friendly welcome I got from the cast and the other guests I’d have been quaking in my boots. Apparently there were loads of reviewers in that night, and there was also a great deal of pressure not to overrun, because otherwise they’d be fined by the venue. Just as I was taking all this in and starting to put my white-face make-up on (to conceal the fact my face had actually gone white with nerves), the cast of the previous show tumbled off the stage and into the backstage room, and a loud female cockney voice was exclaiming about what a nightmare it had been when her radio mic failed and how stressful it had been singing unamplified. I looked up in recognition. That was the voice of Hayley Angel Wardle, one of the four lead actresses of the TV show I’d worked on a couple of years before – Totally Frank on Channel 4. And there she was, in a bright yellow dress and a lot of orange fake tan. I went over to say hello, in my white-face cabaret make-up, and an odd pair we made – a very Edinburgh Festival combination of incongruous costumes. She was in a musical called Departure Lounge about a bunch of lads on their way back from a holiday in Benidorm, and she was playing the femme fatale. I decided that the happy coincidence of winding up in the show right after hers was an auspicious sign.

That didn’t stop me getting the flutters big time about having to step out into the spotlight with nothing but my small pink ukelele and attempt to dazzle a crowded auditorium. The anticipation built up as I waited in the wings with the other performers, hearing but not seeing all the other acts perform their turns. It’s very weird listening to cabaret acts but not being able to see them, it’s a real tease trying to guess what it is the audience are laughing at and what exactly the performer is getting up to out there. I loved Sxip Shirey’s bizarre music, even though I couldn’t see what strange implements he was making his sounds on, and I really enjoyed Greg Walloch’s stand-up routine, but was almost unable to resist the temptation to have a peek and see what Lizzie Wort, Pustra and Vile’een and Scottee were up to, because I could tell there were riotous things going on just the other side of the curtains. My own turn was rather tame by comparison – more whimsical than outrageous really. I recreated a childhood fantasy diva moment by performing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina with my ukelele standing in for the orchestra, the audience standing in for the massed choirs, and a back to front chair for the balcony. The zeal – and the tunefulness – with which the audience joined in led me to suspect that there were more than a couple of performers in the auditorium.

That night I joined the show’s cast for a drink and a dance in the Spiegel Tent but managed to get home by the relatively restrained hour of 3.30am, because the next day I had to get up to go to church.

Yes, I really do mean church. Not a deconsecrated church being used as a Fringe venue. An actual church. My lovely Royal Mile Boy was singing a Haydn mass with his church choir, and had a solo part to perform, so I went along to watch him doing his stuff in cassock and surplice. Because it was a proper mass the choir were tucked away in a corner behind the orchestra, all but out of sight, so I had to sit in a bit of an odd spot to be able to watch him, which meant I missed the ‘real’ show, namely all the synchronised genuflections performed so balletically by the ministers. I must confess I found it all but impossible to sit through the service without unconsciously thinking of it as another piece of theatre, so immersed in the world of festival let’s pretend was I by this time. As such, I must say it stood up rather well, and could probably wipe the floor with some of the other shows on the Fringe. It did secretly amuse me to think that I would be in church in the morning and in Hell with the Devil that same night. But then that’s the Edinburgh Festival for you.

Royal Mile Boy joined me in the Devil’s lair for the show that night, fresh from his mass, and added his dulcet tones to the chorus of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Later on, this being the nature of the festival, he and I ended up out for a drink with the Devil himself, of course. But sadly we were unable to source a chip shop for him where he could satisfy his late night urge for a bag of chips at 4am. Apparently “he who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon” so it’s probably just as well the chip shops were all shut, because I have no idea how you’re supposed to eat chips with a long spoon, or indeed a spoon of any description.

Disappointingly I had to go home the next day, but so smitten was I by my Edinburgh adventures that I was sorely tempted to come back for more the next weekend. In the end I decided to wait until next year, when Royal Mile Boy’s kitten will, hopefully, have got old enough to be a bit more low-key about her demands for attention, and won’t send me home covered in scratches.

I was also sorely tempted to bottle some of that Edinburgh water to bring back to wash my hair in, but in the end I realised that since I was already carrying one duffel bag, one hat box, one ukelele case, one rucksack and two gown bags, I wouldn’t realistically be able to manage a demijohn of water as well. Luckily it was raining as I walked to the station, so my hair got one last free wash anyway.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Music Therapy

I watched a BBC documentary a few weeks back about the therapeutic powers of music – apart from the fact it had Alan Yentob fronting it, it was a great bit of TV. A guy with acute Tourette’s syndrome controlled it by drumming, another guy with acute autism played piano like a god. There were brain scans of Alan Yentob while he listened to his favourite piece of music, showing his brain flooded with blood. Another guy who’d been struck by lightning and suddenly become obsessed with music played piano at a classical recital (although the ‘healing’ side of the deal fell down a bit in his case, since his obsession with music had resulted in the breakdown of his marriage. Or perhaps his marriage needed to break down to make his life better in the long term. Who knows.) Some attempts were made to analyse the power of music in scientific terms, but beyond demonstrating that it did have power, the show didn’t really penetrate the mystery very far.

I’ve been experiencing the healing power of music myself in the last few weeks, after life took a lurch towards the unexpected, and heaped a sudden cold dollop of misfortune upon my head, which I’m not going to moan about here. Instead I want to tell you about how being a musician has made it easier to cope with. When you’re going through a rough patch your friends try to offer up strategies that will make you feel better: get drunk, chainsmoke, gorge on chocolate, etc. I have actually, perversely, completely given up smoking (at last), find myself barely able to down more than a single glass of wine, and can’t summon up any enthusiasm for chocolate, which tastes like dust and ashes in my mouth. But what my musician and cabaret friends have done for me is book me in for loads of extra gigs, and this is the thing that really has done the trick. Maybe it’s because singing and playing takes you outside of yourself. Maybe it’s because it’s a visceral, not a cerebral, experience, playing music, so it quietens the chatter of your brain. Maybe music is a sort of meditation – but a collective rather than a solitary meditation. You tune in to the other people in the band and you get into a groove with them, then just let it carry you along; like floating down a stream. Or maybe it’s got more to do with the audience – being listened to, being appreciated, being loved for what you’re doing. Even though it’s not really you they’re into but the thing you’re projecting – the fantasy you’re creating for them. Or maybe getting dolled up in the false eyelashes, the red lipstick and the heels is like donning armour, and I feel safer inside there.

I know I’m not the only one who has this experience of stepping on stage and putting life’s shit on hold for the duration of the performance. In fact, the more shit my bandmates are going through, the more incredible the performances they pull out of the hat. Witness Miss Honey Mink, prostrated by cold and flu and so poorly she can hardly walk, flounce onstage and scintillate for 20 minutes without having to blow her nose once. Sir Fitzroy Callow holds a throat infection in abeyance to bathe us in the honeyed tones of his trombone with a performance of greater subtlety, sensitivity and wit than ever. Bobby Fresh arrives at the gig crackling with stress after a day of living hell at the office only to bounce and skip his way across the drumkit with that mischievous lightness of touch that is all his own. And Connie Vanderlay – she’s the most astonishing of them all. There was a time, a few years ago, when life had floored her completely, and a few moments before we were due onstage she was in pieces – then she stepped onto the stage, sat down at the keyboard and played the most transporting and life-affirmingly bright piano part I had ever heard. At the time I felt guilty for asking her to gig on through a life crisis, but now I’ve been on the other side of it, I think my policy when any musician friend is going through a rough patch will be to drag them onstage as often as possible. And even if they’re not a musician, I’m going to give them a ukelele – or even a kazoo – and make them play it until they feel better.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Countdown to the big gig

We’re playing at White Mischief at the Scala tonight. TONIGHT! After months of build-up, the big night is almost upon us. This is probably the coolest, most big-league gig the band has ever had.

Here are some of the preparations we’ve been making:

Inter-band emails
Nothing can ever be arranged or confirmed without the full Slinktet checking their diaries and cross referencing the dates everybody can do. This involved mind-numbingly tedious ‘reply-all’ emails, which make your brain dribble out of your ear. What’s more, since I’m the self-appointed manager I’m the one that inflicts this torture on my band-mates, then has to sift through the replies and work out what dates we can play and what dates we can rehearse. This process can go on for several weeks. If I send an email saying ‘I still need dates from X’, X will quite often email me back indignantly pointing out that they replied to that email 2 weeks ago. Oh joy.

This week’s inter-band emails have been all about the set list. We’ve got a half hour slot and we’re not allowed to over-run, so that means 7 songs and me restraining myself and not spending ten minutes in between songs discussing my wardrobe, love life or both. We’ve got a repertoire of at least 25. It would seem that all band members have passionately held views about which are our best songs, and they’re all different. There is going to be at least one song in the set tomorrow that one or more band member doesn’t like. No, of course I’m not going to tell you which one.

Last night was spent the Cellar of Joy under Earl Mysterio’s batchelor pad in Bethnal Green for our final run-through. Miss Connie Vanderlay joined us straight from the airport, as she’d just flown back from Copenhagen. Trousers and I picked up Kitty Bang Bang en route, who is going to be making a surprise cameo in one of our numbers. We tried to clear a bit of floor space down there amongst the amps, leads and empty biscuit packets for her to practice her routine in – but in the end she just sat on the drum stool and waved her arms in time to the music. Very sensibly, considering the state of the floor. I would strongly advise anyone against doing the splits in there. Most of us band members have mysterious white marks on our clothes from where we’ve brushed against the cellar walls at various times; I’d have hated Miss Bang Bang to leave with a white gusset. She might have found herself in an embarrassing social situation later in the evening.

White Mischief is the only gig I’ve ever done proper grown-up Press for. It was very exciting: I got interviewed for a weekly what’s on e-bulletin called London Le Cool. They asked me two whole questions. I also got photographed for it, sitting on a gravestone in Abney Park cemetery, in full gown and feather fascinator, strumming my pink ukelele. This necessitated me strolling through the streets of Stoke Newington at four in the afternoon in a full length turquoise fringed showgirl gown and feathers, false eyelashes and red lipstick. Not one Yummy Mummy turned a hair at the sight, although I did get a few smirks from the schoolkids on their way home.

Preparation Rituals

We all have our own ways of psyching ourselves up. Trousers likes to dwell on all the things that are going to be a hassle, such as the nightmare parking situation in Kings Cross, and all the factors that might make the gig go badly, such as the fact Honey Mink can’t be with us tomorrow to share vocal duties (she’s in Spain being an Aunty). That way, when the gig goes well in spite of these many factors, he can be pleasantly surprised. Other members of the band, I have no doubt, spend the time rehearsing diligently. As for me, before an important singing engagement I generally have an irresistible urge to smoke. Is this some sort of self-destruct mechanism kicking in? Quite possibly. I have given in to the urge several times over the last couple of weeks, and even went as far as buying a packet of Vogue Menthol a few days ago. Luckily I left them behind at my friend’s flat. I know he will have smoked them before I go round there again, which is good news for my vocal chords. The other thing I tend to do is spend the whole run up to the gig obsessing about what I’m going to wear. Which brings me onto the Big Story of this blog entry:

The New Gown
The Tricity Vogue concept is 50% about the music, and 50% about Dressing Up. When I found out Honey wasn’t going to be able to join me for White Mischief, I decided that to make up for the absence of my sexy partner in crime, I was going to need a gown that had a personality all of its own. This may have been no more than a rationalisation of a primal urge to get a new dress made. My friend “Hollywood” has made two gowns for me before, but the last was two years ago, so I thought it was time I gave everybody something different to look at while I was on stage. How selfless of me… I had an idea that I wanted a dress that looked like flock wallpaper, so Hollywood and I hunted down a curtain factory outlet in North Finchley. There was a coach party of little old ladies there, debating which chintz to get to make a throw for the spare room. Meanwhile, Hollywood was running around like a 6 foot black gay Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen having raptures over brocades and Toile de Jouy, exclaiming at the possibilities for a frock coat here and a leather-trimmed slouch bag there. The staff were initially somewhat wary, warning us that we had to buy a minimum of two metres of any fabric. “I don’t think you understand, we are making a GOWN,” spat Hollywood. When he whipped out his sketchbook and started sketching me pictures of what the gown was going to look like, they suddenly sat up and took notice.

There were some suitably opulent brocades, but many of the colour schemes were too muted for stage wear – then Hollywood had an inspiration – we should make it in black and white. We looked at a huge floral design, and Hollywood worried that it looked too much like a curtain? Then we decided that we would make a feature out of the fact Tricity had made her dress out of a curtain – we came up with a whole story together about how she (that is, Tricity the fictional character, rather than me in real life) had been caught in flagrante in a five star hotel room in the midst of a dangerous liaison, and had had to cover her modesty and take flight in a hurry – so she’d taken one of the curtains with her. With no time to collect her gown before her gig that night, she’d got her friend (Hollywood) to run up a dress for her out of the curtain she’d done a runner in. I suppose it’s an adult spin on the Sound of Music curtain play-clothes idea.

First came the taking of measurements (during which Hollywood remained tactfully neutral about the size of my hips), then it was time to buy the fabric. Hollywood ordered me to buy an extra two metres of the curtain fabric we’d chosen, because he had an Idea for a skirt that would be “beyond genius” and would need a LOT of fabric. Then we drove over to Goldhawk Road to buy red and ivory satin for the lining, and Hollywood also blew £100 on various brocades, chiffons and silks that he found himself unable to leave the shop without; I’ve never seen anyone suffering from Fabric Addiction before; he get so genuinely excited by cloth that he can barely restrain himself from jumping up and down and shouting orgasmically. I got lost driving home and accidentally strayed into the congestion zone, which cost me £60, contributing further to this being the most expensive outfit I’ve ever bought.

Then came the toile fitting – the bit where I get pinned into a plain cloth sheath with all the pleats on the outside, and Hollywood draws on it with pencil to mark where the bodice is going to be. Then the first fitting of the gown itself, where the plan came together before our eyes. We discovered that you could wear the back skirt attachment in dozens of different ways – as a shawl, as a coat, as a matador’s cape. Hollywood confessed that he was so excited about this gown he’d stood his tailor’s dummy up on a chair in the window, so people could see it when they walked past his flat. By the second fitting the bodice fitted perfectly and Hollywood pinned me into the whole thing then marched me out onto his front step so he could take photos. The ASBO youths across the road shouted cheeky remarks such as: “It’s Amy Winehouse… Gone Wrong!” Hollywood was dismissive: “Do you see me paying them mind? Pay them no mind, they don’t know genius when it’s before their eyes.” Holloway has never before witnessed such glamour.

Yesterday morning the postman delivered the bespoke fascinator that I’d ordered from Caroline Mitchell Millinery – in an enormous box extravagantly packed with tissue paper and bubble wrap. A pair of black suede shoes have been acquired on sale in a Covent Garden shoe shop. And the final piece of the puzzle fell into place at the jewellery stall in Kingsland shopping centre yesterday – one giant pearl necklace, in exactly the same shade of ivory as the gown. Glamour triumphs, even in Dalston.

Now it’s 9am and I’m writing this because I woke up far too early and couldn’t get back to sleep – but now I have to go, because Hollywood is already awake too, and has summoned me for final fitting, pressing and collection this morning.

The gown will be making its debut at 10.30pm tonight on White Mischief’s second stage upstairs. I believe it is no more fabulous a visual aid than our music deserves. Come and have a look at the loveliest thing I have ever owned. And stay for the cheeky jazz.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tricity Vogue Eats Humble Pie in the Volupte Dressing Rooms

Well shame on me for bitching about the Volupte dressing room, because what did I find when I turned up there last night to play at Burlesque'n'Blues? A whole barrage of mirrors twinkling at me from every wall. Not only that but all the worktops were cleared, so that for the first time ever in my experience, 5 girls could all put their make up on at once without any human origami at all.

I ran out of the dressing room shrieking "Mirrors! Mirrors!" like a 6 year old who'd just opened her birthday presents (funnily enough people do buy me mirrors as presents - I wonder why that is?) Owner Miss Kuki LaBelle explained they'd put loads of extras up for Volupte's 2nd birthday party, when pretty much every performer ever to grace the Volupte stage rocked up to do a turn. So there I was, dissing the place when it was already refurbished.

Miss LaBelle graciously accepted my appreciation of the new mirrors with not a word about my blog entry, diplomat that she is, but when I went back upstairs to sound check, I ran straight into her partner in crime, owner Delories Von Cotier:

"Oy, Vogue, what's this about you dissing our dressing rooms on the internet, you cheeky madam?"

Pete Saunders, pianist and emeritus professor of the Performers' School of Tact And Diplomacy, immediately jumped in with:

"All the best venues have the worst dressing rooms, it's a well known fact."
Apparently if you play at Carnegie Hall they make you get changed outside in the back alley next to the bins.

That's probably where the Misses LaBelle and Von Cotier are going to make me change tonight when I turn up to play Club d'Amour...

Unless they read this blog today and discover that I have honoured Volupte's dressing rooms with a specially created new award:

"The most maligned dressing room award."


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hot and Cold Running Dressing Rooms

I've decided there have been enough nipple tassels in my blog for now, so this entry I'm going to give you a dressing room audit instead. Ooh the excitement, I hear you cry. But seriously, this is a matter close to all performers' hearts, and therefore deserves its place in a 'behind the scenes" diary.

A few years back a stand up comic friend used to invite me backstage now and again when I went to watch his gigs. This was before I was a regular performer around London myself, and I was completely gobsmacked to discover that even in the pretty big-time comedy clubs the dressing rooms were uniformly tawdry, peeling affairs with strip lights and seats with the foam sticking out through holes in the vinyl. However, what interested me more than the décor was finding out what stand up comics talk about backstage. Would there be badinage? Would they try out new material on each another? Would there be some sort of comedy haka?

Guess what? Stand up comics talk about dressing rooms. They start off doing an audit of the dressing room they're in, and then they go into a compare-and-contrast with the dressing rooms of all the other comedy clubs around the country. It didn't take me long to pick up on the fact that there was a subtext going on, namely "let me give you a list of all the comedy clubs I've played in all over the country, and then you can list all the ones you've played in, and let's see if mine's bigger than yours." But even with the subtext it was not exactly scintillating conversation.

Only now I've been performing for a bit myself do I realise that the chitchat you make in dressing rooms before you go on stage is not a fully functioning conversation, it's more like verbal chewing gum, giving you something to do with your mouth while your mind runs around the act you're about to do on stage, what your opening line is going to be, whether you've left a set list somewhere you'll be able to see it, whether your ukelele is in tune etc etc. I know women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking but I've discovered I can't actually put my make up on and retain any information from a conversation I'm having at the same time. I'm like a goldfish while I'm sticking my false eyelashes on; a few weeks back I had a whole ten minute reminiscence conversation with Vile-een of Pustra and Vile-een about Edinburgh Fringe experiences, and two minutes later I asked her whether she'd gone last year, a question which she had just spent ten minutes answering.

But if there is one conversation guaranteed to get a dressing room full of musicians, burlesquers and cabaret performers' animated attention, it's a discussion about dressing rooms. Now that I am one of the performers engaged in these conversations on a weekly basis, I don't think they're about willy waving any more. I think they're partly a sort of comfort conversation, and partly a sort of solidarity conversation ('we're all in this together"). They're also about straightforward curiosity, stemming from the fact that sometimes a dressing room comes as a big surprise when you compare it to the side of the venue that the punters get to see.

Volupte is my favourite club in London, but it hasn't won my heart through the charms of its dressing room I can tell you. Not exactly palatial at the best of times, trying to find a corner of mirror to use to put your make up on when there's a full compliment of burlesquers on the bill is an exercise in human origami. The other week I put my foot through my dress with my stiletto and ripped it, because I was squatting in the corridor in my gown while trying to put my make up on in a mirror propped on the floor because there was no room in the dressing room itself. Thank God for iron-on fabric repair kits. And then a couple of gigs back I was just about to put my vintage Christian Dior pink satin court shoes down on the floor when I noticed that I was in fact standing in a puddle, and the whole dressing room floor was flooded. Apparently this is a side effect of the washing machine, which the staff themselves have got so used to that they don't even notice any more. The human origami got even more advanced when we had to try and share a corner of the mirror and avoid standing in an inch of water in our best shoes at the same time. I'm tempted to give Volupte the 'worst dressing room' award.

'Smallest dressing room award' may well go to the Glass Bar at Euston Station, but since the whole women-only bar is so tiny it fits inside one of the two stone lodges at the entrance to the station, its dressing room is charmingly to scale, and it seems churlish to complain that you can only fit one person in it at a time. 'Biggest dressing room award' goes to the Sideshow dressing room above the Arts Club near Leicester Square, because the 'dressing room' is in fact the dance studio one floor up from the club, which has vast acreage of mirror – and a bar, in case anybody fancies some warm up demi pliés. This much space can go to a performer's head. In fact, last time I was there, I witnessed Matt Fraser run across the room, slap burlesquer Lamb Chop Magoo on the arse, then run back to the other side of the room (as if to conceal the fact it was him). He also tried out some high kicks on one of the pillars in the middle of the room – his footprint may well be still there, 6 feet above the floor.

'Most glamorous dressing room award' goes to Paradise By Way of Kensal Green. The other day I was doing a little ukelele interlude in between dazzling burlesque numbers at Roxy Velvet, Ivy Paige and Kitty Bang Bang's night "Head over Heels." The dressing room was an elegantly appointed space with a huge gilt-framed mirror at one end, a wall full of mirrors of every shape and size at the other end, and a range of beautifully upholstered couches in between. What really ratcheted up the glamour factor, however, was the fact that there was not one, not two, but three photographers roving the room while the girls were getting changed, taking candid snaps of them sticking on their nipple tassels, pulling up their stocking etc. It was like the photos of the bride getting ready that you get in wedding albums, but with about six brides at once. I was in the midst of blowing on the glue on one of my false eyelashes when I looked up to find a camera lens trained on me from about a foot away (I sensed there was some sort of arty 'reflection in the mirror' shot going on). I think I ruined the potential glamour of the shot by looking up, startled, as if I'd been caught out with my false teeth or my glass eye in my hand after the ball was over. I'm not sure how I feel about close ups of my false eyelashes, to be honest, particularly since I've been wearing the same pair for about six months now (does that make me an eyelash slut?). Not that I needed to worry about intrusive lenses too much since I was in the weird position of being so low-key as to barely register on the glamour radar in the company of Misses Velvet, Paige and Bang Bang and their guests, despite the fact I was wearing a full-length turquoise fringed evening gown and feather fascinator. Ironically, I was both over- and under-dressed at the same time.

I'm going to give my 'Favourite dressing room award' to the BFI Southbank after last night's gig though. I'd asked if there was a room we could dump stuff and get changed in, and was shown into a big square room with a mirrored ceiling, a coffee table with bottled water laid out for us, and loads of smart-looking chairs. The Lady Greys were draped around the room getting ready to do their Edwardian skirt dance, pouring themselves into vintage underwear or sitting in the splits, and generally making the place look like an Edward Degas painting. Okay, so the dressing room wasn't entirely functional, since the only mirrors in the room were on the ceiling.

This led to a lot of cricks in necks as we all craned our heads backwards to check head gear, hair and make up. But once we'd finished our gig, me and Connie discovered a giant leather bean bag we could lie on and look up at ourselves on the ceiling, which has got to be my favourite post-gig chill out position ever. Claire the organiser popped in for a chat and revealed that we were in the green room that had been used by all the stars who'd made personal appearances at the BFI Southbank, reeling off a list of names that included Anjelica Huston and George Clooney. I wonder if George Clooney lay on his back on the same beanbag, looking up at his reflection in the ceiling? I bet he did.

Or maybe he had a chat with Anjelica Huston about how this room compared with other dressing rooms they'd both been in. I'd love to know how they rated it.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Case of the Missing Nipple Tassels

More tales from the dressing room

One Burlesque’n’Blues night at Volupte, panic breaks out in the dressing room. Marianne Cheesecake has forgotten her nipple tassels. First she asks the other burlesquers, but neither Vicky Butterfly nor Chrys Columbine have brought spares. They briefly contemplate sharing but realise this is technically unfeasible, given the turnaround between their acts and the amount of time it takes the glue to dry. So Marianne is left with three choices. Either 1) she stops her act short when the bra comes off, turns her back on the audience and finishes her turn there, 2) She gives everyone more of an eyeful than they bargained for, or 3) she finds something else to construct temporary pasties out of.

Marianne decides to go for option 3. Ever resourceful venue owner Delores Von Cotier is applied to for assistance, and produces two round plasters to go over Marianne’s nipples. This at least ensures the licensing laws will not be flouted. We all get very enthusiastic about using gaffer tape until the harsh reality of that nasty black stuff is right under our noses. Marianne quails visibly at the thought of sticking it to her tender extremities. Misses Butterfly and Columbine are full of advice about the best way to remove gaffer tape from the body – the consensus seems to be that it will hurt like hell whatever way you do it, so your best bet is to rip it off quick. All this sounds worse than waxing. A more gentle alternative, that of fashioning star shapes out of the gaffer tape which can then be stuck on with normal pastie glue, seems like a better idea in theory. I set about trying to make some little black stars out of gaffer tape. They look shit. Marianne very politely declines to affix the two wonky bits of black cack onto her nipples. The Blue Peter team’s jobs are safe.

In the end Marianne comes upon a brilliant solution off the cuff when she’s on stage doing her act. Marianne’s act for Burlesque’n’Blues involves shambling onstage dressed as a little old lady, carrying ‘Grandma’s Songbook’. This she plonks importantly down in front of Pete Saunders and instructs him to play. Pete bursts into Anything Goes, and Grandma starts to strip, to the consternation of the audience, who didn’t sign up for an edgy ‘alt-cabaret’ experience, and are not too thrilled at the prospect of septuagenarian nudity. To their relief, however, once the wig comes off, and a few more cardigans, Marianne is revealed to be a nubile young lady after all. Those of us in the know wait with baited breath for the climactic moment of the routine. How will Miss Cheesecake manage without her nipple tassels? What she does, very cleverly, is grab Grandma’s Songbook from the music stand as soon as the bra comes off, clutch it to her chest, and run off stage with her opening prop pressed back into service to finish the act. I think that’s what they call narrative closure. In fact, it’s such a good idea that I think Marianne should do the same thing every time, whether she remembers her pasties or not.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Playing with the Big Boys

Stories from the Volupte Dressing Room

Every time I step inside the doors of Volupte it’s like walking into the plot of a movie. Usually one of those saucy 60s comedies with Brigitte Bardot or Peter Sellers in. So I’ve decided this material is too good to waste and it is my duty to share it with you.

Story number 1: The Texan Oil Baron

A partyloving burlesque beauty staggers into the dressing room to get ready for the night’s show complaining that she’s a wreck. She didn’t get in until two. And by that she means two this afternoon. I ask her where she’s been and she tells me the whole story. And then she says she probably shouldn’t have told me, but she’s just hopelessly indiscreet by nature. Unfortunately for her, it’s not in my nature to let a good story go to waste either. So I’m going to keep this burlesque beauty and her partner-in-crime anonymous by calling them Q and T (QT – see what I did there?). Q managed to get on the guestlist for an exclusive club, so she called up T and told her to don her glad rags: they were going out to play. (T, incidentally, had been telling me only the week before that she was a bit worried about Q because she was partying so hard at the moment. I’m guessing that was why she felt obliged to go along with her: to make sure she was okay.) Q and T get chatting to some well-heeled American guys who turn out to include a Texan oil baron, and who keep Q and T supplied with champagne all night. When, eventually, the exclusive nightclub closes its doors, Q and T make the Texan oil baron and his friends take them out for food. After the food they are reluctant to call it a night, but luckily the Texan oil baron reveals he still has a mini-bar in his suite at the Dorchester that will keep Q and T in booze for a bit longer. And that’s where Q and T stay until 2pm the following afternoon.

Q remained faithful to her boyfriend, despite her inebriated state (I believe Q’s boyfriend is a drummer, and it’s probably wise to stay faithful to any boy who hits things for a living), but T, who has recently rejoined the ranks of the unattached, indulged herself in a cheeky snog with the Texan oil baron. To T’s surprise, when she and Q left, the Texan oil baron pressed two thousand dollars into her hand ‘for the taxi’. I commented that it would be rather inconvenient to have to take the notes to a bureau de change before hailing a cab, but Q added that he had also given T a fifty pound note in addition to the two thousand US dollars. T had immediately instructed Q to tell no one this story, because she felt somewhat concerned that people might misconstrue the circumstances and think that she was now charging for snogs, whereas, in fact, the snog had been endowed with no thought of renumeration of any kind, as all the best snogs are. Q was mainly disappointed that her noble fidelity to her drummer boyfriend had meant that no notes were pressed into her own hands on departure. However, she was quite satisfied with the quality and quantity of free booze she had consumed courtesy of the Texan oil baron, although she did find it necessary to nip out to Sainsbury’s and get herself a bottle of Magners cider to put the zing back in her step before she could go on stage and do her thing.

I was filled with admiration for the colourful adventure Q and T had succeeded in having. It also occurred to me that their tale would make Beloved blanch, as it was precisely the sort of scenario he dreams up whenever I am late home from a gig and forget to text him, although all I ever get up to is a lengthy discussion about favourite artists with a (generally female or homosexual) cabaret comrade. No, these saucy tales of the Volupte dressing room were for me to listen to, not participate in.

Or so I thought.

Story number 2: The Riding Crop
Last Friday I was on the bill of Volupte’s Friday Follies, hosted by the blonde, dashing, and (tragically for the ladies) homosexual Mr Dusty Limits, who had brought with him a diamond encrusted riding crop to assist him in his role as Master of Ceremonies. It certainly came in handy for threatening the first house’s chatty audience into submission. I was also delighted to be asked to mind the crop while Dusty performed a number later in the show.

I gave it a couple of practise swishes. I feel quite comfortable holding a riding crop because, like many teenage girls, I went through a big pony-mad phase between the ages of 9 and 13. I was a very nervous rider, so I always got the laziest pony to ride, since there was no risk of him galloping off anywhere with me on top of him. Major, he was called, and he was a skewbald, although a skewbald what I’m not sure. To get Major to do anything more than amble, or stand stock still, it was necessary to carry a crop when riding him. I never actually had to hit Major with the crop; all I had to do was raise it threateningly, as if I was about to hit him, and Major would burst into a trot. For about ten paces. And then he’d go back to ambling again. I think I got my riding crop from my granddad who was an antiques dealer, and who seemed to be able to acquire most things required by my various childhood obsessions (including an antique bakelite recorder which was out of tune, but that’s a whole different story). My old crop’s probably still in the loft at home, with my riding hat (which my parents had decided it was probably safer to buy new rather than apply to my granddad for). But now here I was with a riding crop in my hand once more. I felt quite disappointed to have to give it back to Dusty.

After the first show, as I was about to head to the kitchen for my dinner (pasta and Bolognese sauce, courtesy of Cheffy) two gentlemen in the audience hailed me over. One of them explained that it was his 40th birthday and it would really make his night if I would spank him with the riding crop. I graciously told him I would think about it and retreated to the kitchen immediately, where I shared the story with Dusty, expecting him to laugh and think no more of it. Instead of which he calmly handed me his diamond encrusted riding crop.

So I went back out into the restaurant (followed by Sir Fitzroy Callow, Miss Connie Vanderlay and Volupte’s erstwhile soundman Steve, who couldn’t wait to see if I’d go through with it). Birthday boy obligingly got out of his seat and knelt in the alcove on the stage, presenting his rear end to me ready for a taste of the whip. I suggested his friend take a picture, but his friend complained it was too dark and there was no flash on his camera phone. Probably, in retrospect, this was just as well. I pretended to hit him, but instead passed the whip to his mate, who gave birthday boy a jokey thrashing. I thought this would suffice but birthday boy was adamant: he wanted me to whip him myself, just once. I backed up to give myself a good run up, thinking this would add to the comedy value, then ran over and whacked him. He was dewy eyed with gratitude.

I felt rather hot in the face as I retreated to the kitchen and returned Dusty’s crop. My trio of watchers wondered loudly if Beloved knew about this side of my nature? But, as I have so carefully explained with my anecdote about Major the pony, riding crops are for me objects with purely innocent childhood associations, and not in any way sexual.

In any way. Whatsoever.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Two Weddings and a Feather Fascinator

Two weddings in less than a week, and I've been shopping like a whirling dervish with a credit card, I can tell you.

This Sunday, my beloved partner-in-crime, Miss Honey Mink, ties the knot in the Waldorf Hilton. I went with her on Tuesday to do a recce, and it's as gorgeous inside as those twinkly fairy lights on the outside promise. Me and the rest of the Slinktet are going to be playing some cheeky jazz straight after the ceremony in Palm Court, a room so glamorously art deco that it featured in Titanic as a location. Bobby Fresh's brand new silver glitter drumkit is going to look very snazzy in there indeed. I feel very excited that Fresh has bought himself such a glamorous new kit. I'm sure he didn't choose it solely for its looks alone, but the fact that he proudly sent us all a photograph of it leads me to suspect that he is not entirely insensitive to its beauty. There's also a rather lovely grand piano for Miss Connie to tinkle on, and a mad echoey acoustic that is going to make Sir Fitzroy's trombone very loud, and give us hell to play trying to get the vocals to sound half decent.

The night after my Waldorf recce I woke up sweating after a nightmare in which I was upstaged at the Reception by two opera singers, who muscled their way to the Palm Court grand piano before I could get to it, and started belting out arias while Honey's guests were sipping cocktails. Then, bizarrely, the wedding reception was transported into a pub, at which three different bands were playing, and all of them were fantastic, and none of them would get off stage and let me on, and when eventually they did, I'd lost my band. I'm not sure what this dream means exactly - jazzer Pete Saunders suggested a psychiatrist would have a field day with my 'opera complex' - but it's not as if I need to worry about my performance on Sunday anyway, because it's the bride who's going to be the star of this particular show. There are times when it is actually a great pleasure to be upstaged, and a dear friend's wedding is one of them.

Having said that, even though I know everyone will be clustering around the beautiful bride and not paying any attention to me singing in a corner, I had to go out and buy myself a new dress anyway. Of course, I can't actually afford a new dress. But there are times when Needs Must. It became apparent that I was going to have to buy a new outfit first thing this morning, when I disturbed Beloved's peaceful slumbers by yanking a dress I hadn't worn for years out from the back of my clothes rail and trying it on to discover that it was two sizes too big, then yanking another dress out of the bottom of a storage bag I noisily hauled down from the top shelf in the bedroom, narrowly avoiding a fatal accident in the process. That didn't fit either. Beloved freely acknowledged this, and then uttered those magical words that every girlfriend longs to hear:

"Get yourself a new dress. I'll pay for it."

Of course, I wouldn't dream of actually making him pay for it, but just hearing those words is like honey. And all the encouragement I needed to go racing out of the house. Frustratingly, Beloved made me wait until he'd finished his bath before I left, in case the postman turned up with his DVD box set of The Wire. I was literally hopping from foot to foot, going "Can I go now? Can I go now?" If he was ever in any doubt about how much I loved clothes, those doubts have been swept away by this morning's performance. Let's just hope he never asks himself what I would save first if the flat was on fire, him or my wardrobe.

The vintage clothes shops of Stoke Newington and Notting Hill Gate have come up trumps with a 50s dress in turquoise brocade and a pair of flawless Christian Dior pink satin heels. Then there's the pink feather fascinator I bought last weekend from a hatter in Rye, and a pair of white 50s gloves I inherited from my aunt, and a pink silk evening bag from Accessorise. Sorted. Ironically, the whole outfit was planned around the pink marabou feather coat my friend Stephane made me last year, but when I put the coat on top of the rest of the outfit I looked like some sort of grotesque parody of a Grease cast member - and not any of the cool ones, more like the 'beauty school dropout'. So the feather coat has to go, but actually the rest of the outfit works fine without it.

I know exactly when I am going to wear the feather coat, though... to my next wedding on 29 February. This, in stark contrast to Sunday's joyous and poignant event, will be a Sham Wedding. The bride is Mr Dusty Limits, and his three grooms will be Ruby Blues, Naomi Blume and Kate Friend. I am honoured to be participating in this "momentous and utterly ludicrous event" at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, along with, apparently, every single cabaret and burlesque performer in the whole of London Town. Dusty has issued us with stern instructions not to upstage each other. The service itself will no doubt surpass even the most hammy of soap opera weddings for shocking last minute revelations and moments of tear-jerking sentimentality. I can't wait to find out what the bride will be wearing. Even more intriguing is what the grooms will be wearing... here's hoping it's more than in their wedding photograph, or they'll catch their deaths.

I'm going to be leading the congregation in a stirring hymn on the ukelele. If you want to know what that hymn will be, and whether I will be able to get through the entire thing on my small pink friend without forgetting the chords or being upstaged by a burlesque diva wearing nothing but gold paint, you'll have to come to the Bethnal Green Working Mens Club on Friday 29 February and find out for yourself.

The Wedding of the (leap) year of the Rat: from 7pm on Friday 29 February at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, with a Deception from 9pm featuring sensational live bands and DJs. Entry £5.

I'll be the one in all the pink feathers.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nostalgia Trip

I just celebrated my birthday (no, I’m not telling), and it sent me on a nostalgia trip about my very first singing gig, which was also on my birthday, many years ago.

I was living in Sri Lanka, where I’d gone to teach English in an international school. Me and my flatmates, two other nubile young teachers, were invited out by a group of Sri Lankan bright young things to the karaoke bar of the Ramada Renaissance hotel in Colombo. I got up and had a turn at the mic, and when I came back to my seat, one of the bright young things, whose name was Rohan, told me there was a grand piano in the lobby, and did I fancy knocking out a few tunes with him? So while the rest of the gang went downstairs to the hotel nightclub, we hung out in the lobby going through all the tunes we could think of together. We kept at it for hours. Rohan was a composer who’d just come back from studying for a music degree in the States. He was quite sexy when he got behind a keyboard, and that was my idea of heaven: leaning against a shiny black grand piano, played by an attractive man, in a five star hotel lobby, in a tropical country, in the small hours of the morning, singing.

Then another bright young thing came over and said hello. She’d been listening for a while, and she knew Rohan slightly from the Colombo social scene. She told us she was organising a jazz night at the Hilton Hotel in a few weeks’ time, and she invited us both to come and perform at it. It was on 10 January. My birthday.

The girl put me in touch with the guy who was organising the music for her for that night; a jazz pianist called Cecil Rodrigo. I went over to his place to rehearse a few numbers with him. He lived in an annexe room over the garage of a relative’s house, and rehearsed on a tiny Casio keyboard. He had a lit cigarette between his fingers the whole time, and dropped ash on the keyboard while he played. Cecil thought I had promise, but I didn’t know enough of the standards. He told me to go away and listen to as much Ella Fitzgerald as possible. He also asked a singer friend of his, Jean Fernando, to lend me her lyrics book to photocopy so I’d have all the words to the standards. Jean performed in all the five star hotels in Colombo, with her husband Rodney on sax. She was lovely to me. I’ve still got that photocopy.

Meanwhile Rohan and I were spending quite a lot of time together, although always as part of a group. Sri Lankan social life for this rather upper crust set was a bit like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. The rigid rules of social acceptability lurked just beneath the surface of their apparently Western party lifestyle. It wasn’t respectable for Rohan and me to be alone together (although I wouldn’t have minded), and there was something clandestine about Rohan’s flirtation with me, which I didn’t really clock at the time, being quite new to the country. He’d phone me up and chat for hours; mischievous, teasing conversations; but when we were out with the group his female friends closed in around him. One of them once said to me at a party, “There are lots of good-looking English boys teaching at your school. Why don’t you stick to your own kind?” They saw me as a dangerous foreign femme fatale, which bemused me, since as far as I was concerned it was Rohan that was ringing me up and flirting with me. I only wanted him for his piano playing.

Rohan came round with a cassette he’d made for me: it was a copy of an album by Doris Day and Andre Previn. I must have played that album more or less daily for the whole two years I lived in Sri Lanka. Back home in England everyone was singing along to Take That. I was singing along to “Falling in love again” and learning Doris’s phrasing. Just a couple of years ago, our trombone player Sir Fitzroy Callow lent me his copy of the same album, and I was reunited with it. It still sounds as good.

My birthday and the gig came around, and the whole day seemed magical. I came back to Colombo on the train after a weekend in the hill country with a newfound friend, who was even more like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Birthday Boy was a beautiful blonde public school boy who spent the entire train journey teaching me the lyrics to Cole Porter songs. I had fallen head over heels in love with him, all the more so because he batted for the other team, which made him tantalisingly unobtainable. We still go away for the weekend every year for my birthday, to celebrate our anniversary.

We arrived at the Hilton hotel’s nightclub, the Blue Elephant, for my debut that evening, and the staff presented me with a birthday cake. It was a chocolate mousse one, and it was absolutely gorgeous. I was sitting with Birthday Boy and a bunch of English teachers from the international school. Rohan turned up with an entourage of bright young things, who colonised the other side of the club.

Although I’d rehearsed a few times with Cecil Rodrigo, Rohan and I hadn’t rehearsed for our turn together that night. Naively, I hadn’t worried too much about that; when we’d played together in the Ramada lobby, it had seemed so easy and natural, so all we’d have to do, I thought, was the same thing again. But the forces that were pulling Rohan and me apart came to a head that night. There were digs about me made by his friends that Rohan seemed embarrassed about, and he avoided me for the whole evening until it was time to go on stage. Did Rohan do it because he had listened to his friends about how unsuitable I was, and wanted to drive me away? Was it an intentional act of humiliation? Or was he showing off his jazz virtuosity to his friends? Or perhaps I do him a disservice, and he was just a self-conscious performer, suffering from nerves or stage fright. For whatever reason, Rohan launched into a jazz rendition of the song we were meant to do together that was so abstruse that it was almost impossible for a novice like me to follow. I bravely battled through to the end of the number as best I could, then sloped off stage.

Cecil, the old jazzer who’d taken me under his wing and had been training me up, comforted me by saying that Rohan had been unfair on me, and hadn’t been playing with me at all. Then Cecil pulled me up on stage to play with him and his cronies, all seasoned jazzers with a warmth and generosity that was quite different to Rohan’s prickly performance. They were just more comfortable on stage. The sax player in Cecil’s band asked me if I knew “The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. I’d done the musical at school and I knew it like the back of my hand. But I’d never heard it done like this before. Cecil and his band swung it, and it was glorious. I came in, swooping over the top of it, remembering about half of the words, but feeling so gleeful at the mischief of the song’s transformation that it carried me through to the end triumphantly. I came off stage glowing, and completely smitten with jazz. That was my first experience of improvising with a band in front of an audience, and I was hooked from the off. It was like throwing yourself over the edge of the Death Slide at the adventure playground with your eyes shut.

If Cecil hadn’t pulled me back on stage after my disastrous number with Rohan, maybe I’d never have become a jazz singer. Cecil gave me my grounding in jazz, and my first gigs. In the second year I was there he went off the radar, and it turned out he’d started to drink more heavily, and lost a lot of his gigs because he was too unreliable. When I went back to Sri Lanka six years later and tried to look him up I found out he’d died of liver failure. I never got to tell him I was still singing, and to say thank you to him for kicking me off.

But on the other hand, if Rohan hadn’t pulled me out of the karaoke bar and over to the grand piano in the lobby that night at the Ramada Renaissance hotel, I’d never have been booked for my first ever gig, and I’d never have met Cecil in the first place. Rohan and I never made music together again like we did that first night; too many outside pressures got in the way. But that first night was magic.

And what number was I singing in the karaoke bar when he spotted me? Madonna’s Like a Virgin.