The proliferation of burlesque schools in the UK is proof not only of the genre’s growing popularity, but also of its increasing professionalism. As one of the leading London schools and a hotbed of talent currently making the rounds of Britain’s variety circuit, The Cheek of It has just released the year’s last batch of bump-and-grinding graduates upon an unsuspecting world. Always keen to witness new flesh in all its stages of undress, Erotic Review is delighted to cover the multiple burlesque debut at Soho staple Madame Jojo’s.
Hosted by shameless musical comedy provocateur Toni Galore with flippant bawdiness, the evening boasted production values to rival most of the established revues in the local scene. Making the most of the venue, the showcase deployed smoke machines, dynamic lighting cues and swift stage management in a thoroughly engrossing spectacle. Likewise, the show featured a comically preposterous frame narrative where Galore holds the burlesquers as kidnapped slaves inside an aquarium, from which they promptly escape in order to seek their audience. Rather than a recurring element, the narrative gimmick (curiously reminiscent of House of Burlesque’s Shipwrecked, another nautically themed engagement presented at Madame Jojo’s) proved an additional joke in a long succession of comic asides.
Humour is high throughout the night. Peggy Pom Pom starts the proceedings with a charmingly cartoonish skit where she attempts to guide a World War II airplane back to safety by any means necessary, including feather fans and consummate tassel-twirling. The act is an instant hit with its accomplished physical comedy and seamless farce. By the same token, Alabama Love pairs skilled hula-hooping with graceful clowning in her monkey act, while Lily Stargazer offers a clear narrative as a homeless bag lady who’s transformed after finding a showgirl’s lost suitcase. Sadly, the bit suffers greatly from a rushed strip finale preceded by dance moves out of synch with the soundtrack.
Other graduates favour a darker edge, with results ranging from sensual to confrontational. Praying in full nun regalia, Velvet Lune succumbs to the temptation of a juicy proverbial apple, initiating a sinful rebirth, complete with Bible-burning antics. The belle launches into a provocative dance, evolving into an energetic strip act full of breath-taking malice. Crawling onstage out of the smoky haze from some steaming bayou backwater, the aptly named Voodoo Fury sizzles with sexy moves as she sheds layers of beads and feathers in a hypnotic slow burner. As the bearer of the evening’s sole merkin, Ms Fury smoothly balances sexiness and humour, throwing snakes at the crowd for comic relief.
The eerie section of the programme comes full-circle with Raven Six (seasoned burlesque photographer Tigz Rice, taking a bold step to the other side of the lenses). Clad in black from hair to corset, she swoons swiftly to Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King to present an ingenious, exquisitely timed fan dance. Glitter turns to blood in a nightmarish routine filled with spellbinding theatricality.
The roster of graduates featured a new troupe, The Tiger Pirates, whose debut number sees all six members alternate their striptease choreography with sword-fighting, treasure-hunting and other seafaring antics. Though complementary to the show’s meta-narrative, the collective’s performance is consistently clumsy and hapzard due to great disparities in rhythm, charisma and enthusiasm among its components. Hesitation prevails in Kitty Crimson’s bride act, while Mercury Flame balances the clever but convoluted narrative of a curious showgirl let loose in a soldier’s bunker with vibrant go-go moves and a lustful striptease.
Interspersed with the graduates, a handful of featured established burlesquers punctuates the showcase. Carmella de la Minx contributes her irresistibly voluptuous Spanish Tantrum act, a sultry ticking bomb of overwhelming passion that was a highlight in this year’s London Burlesque Week auditions. Similarly, Shirley Windmill tickles the fancies of a receptive audience with the marrow number that landed her the Best Variety award at the newcomers’ competition of the same festival. Updated with a new, impressively realistic prop marrow, the song-and-dance routine shows strong developments. Her singing is more mellow and textured, and her many antics more pungent and assertive. In this context, it’s hard not to see Windmill’s turn as a powerful message to the roster of fledgling burlesquers, all the more significant because she (like Ms de la Minx) is also a Cheek of It alumna.
Headlining the function is none other than Lady Cheek herself. The school founder graces the stage with a classic fan dance to the tune of Hindi Sad Diamonds from Moulin Rouge. Her act oozes elegance and sensuality, matching a seductive proud strut with fluid, enticing bumps. As a corollary to a rich programme of burlesque acts in widely different styles, it projects an unmistakable statement of glamour and feminine enchantment.
Congratulations to the Cheek of It class of 2011: you have now performed professionally before a paying audience in an established venue, shared the stage with seasoned entertainers, and been reviewed accordingly. Erotic Review magazine wishes you all the best in the aftermath of your debut. May it prove the first step in a long career full of joyful bumps, saucy grinds, tonnes of glitter and a profusion of fans (and not just of the feathery kind). For those about to strip, we salute you.
The Cheek of It Graduate Showcase. Hosted by Toni Galore. Madame Jojo’s, Soho, London. 27 November, 19:30. £12 (£10 advance). www.thecheekofit-burlesque.com
Photos by Sin Bozkurt