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REVIEW: The Burlesque Hour (Glory Box Edition) | York Theatre, Sydney

Who hasn’t seen Finucane & Smith’s The Burlesque Hour? Now’s your chance to catch the international hit in Sydney, with new songs and sparkle.

This is the “Glory Box Edition” of Finucane & Smith’s The Burlesque Hour and its design (set by Barrie Michael Baxter and Isaac Lummis; lighting from Marko Respondeck; costumes by Lummis and David Anderson) lavishly reflects the branding, with the simplest of touches. There’s cheap-yet-charming tasseled Chinese lanterns, as well as scarlet drapes and a blue-white, scalloped satin curtain. Seymour’s York Theatre has been converted into a cabaret club, with velvet-swathed cafe tables crowded against a catwalk extending from a small, elevated stage. Who would’ve thought, of all places, the concrete coldness of Sydney Uni’s Seymour could yield a sumptuous, Parisian ambience?

It’s a show that’s already been seen by a huge number of people. In fact, you won’t get much (if any) change out of a 100,000. Indeed, it’s travelled the world, as well as the back blocks of this die, brown land. It’s a bloody big feather in the cap of F & S (which, let’s face it, sounds like a fashion label, upmarket scent, boutique stationer, or supplier of Her Maj’s fruit ‘n’ veg), a partnership fortuitously forged eight years ago in, of all places, southern China; cue those lanterns.

There they were, Moira and Jackie (as they tell it), on the verandah of an avant grade nightclub, watching the rain pour down, when, if their tale is to be taken at face value, they had a virtual epiphany. Suddenly, they were on a mission from God to open a salon, not oriented around hair, nails or a day spa as their names might suggest, but rather, their crystal-ball revealed a future phenomenon which, one day, they and others would look back upon as “a salon of the extraordinary and the underground, the unforgettable and indefinable, as seductive as it was subversive, as provocative as it was entertaining”. Easier imagined, of course, than done. But strong Chinese wine and strong Australian women makes all things seem possible.

The wheels of the Qantas jumbo had barely hit the tarmac at Tullamarine and they were up and running, slap-bang in the frozen middle of a Melbourne winter, “fusing demi-monde nightclub with jaw-dropping cabaret, insolent and exotic live art, circus and the literary gothic, showgirl and back room ballet, chanson, butoh and sideshow”. With that kind of way with words, really, how could they fail? They couldn’t. They didn’t. It was a sellout and its momentum has swollen as surely and dramatically as Amanda Palmer’s crowd funding. They could be businesswomen of the year, if they weren’t so damned busy curating. Their story is worthy of an arts admin case study. But it’s not just an economic miracle, it’s a cultural revolution, which clearly stems from their ethos, which they express as follows:

“Every artist in the company, those onstage and off, up ladders and behind scenes, nude and clothed, besuited and bedazzled, old(er) and young(er), straight(er) and gay(er), has three qualities Finucane & Smith scour the world fr and prize above all else: they are idiosyncratic and unique; passionate and hardworking; adore audiences with an undying love.”

F & S are in danger of giving burlesque a good name, as they restore it’s substance and style, making it, again, risqué variety, rather than RiSsoLe soft porn. This is burlesque infused with and informed by wit, ideas, scripts, politics, sensuality, primal expressionism, drama, choreography, acrobatics and more. It has depth, intensity and many emotional colours. It is disturbing and challenging; freakish and funny.

The mistress of macabre mayhem, the empress of eccentricity, is Finucane herself; slender of form but not of talent. She is the presiding gothic queen of grand guignol, who’s happy to parade, heart (literally) in hand, dripping blood. This, in striking contrast to the ‘handsomest dancer ever born’, Paul Cordeiro, who plies his fusion of samba, salsa and Bollywood go-go to tickled-pink squeals of feminine (and maybe masculine) affirmation. He is, after all, the only man on stage.

But TBH is built on contrast and counterpoint. The bidding opens with Finucane as the archetypal Italian stallion; or Italian Stallone, perhaps; a kind of emaciated Tony Monero This would-be-if-he-could-be, come hither, latter-day romeo, this Leichahrdt lothario, in his suburban Sydney way, strikes suggestive poses to the inevitable tune of Divinyls’ I Touch Myself. It gets us in the mood. To laugh. He looks like he’s just returned from soccer practice but, of course, is always ready for love. Slowly but surely, he begins to strip, starting with his socks, which he seductively sniffs before discarding. But when he gets down to his singlet, a gender-bender surprise awaits. Jaws almost audibly hitting the floor makes for a robust opening.

Hot on “his” heels is special, limited edition guest artist, the petite yet voluptuous Lilikoi Kaos, who does things with hoops that defy the eye, musically accompanied by electroswing, which provides an deal rhythmic bed. It’s all down to impeccable timing and acute comic sensibility.

Maude Davey’s Monkey Love follows: emerging in a gorilla suit to the tune of Christine Aguilera’s Beautiful is a truly inspired and ingenious way in which to raise consciousness, by questioning what is beautiful while couching it in humour; the cogently political thus becomes palatable. It’s a covert message to all those who’ve ever felt like or been deemed a monster: you’re beautiful, no matter what they say. This gorilla really packs a punch.

Finucane  reappears, uniformed in a style I barely remember from childhood and which might only now be seen on rollerskating waitresses at Arnold’s, or in mid-west diners, in movies or your dreams. With quivering lip and barely suppressed, voracious appetite, Pie is all about the Four ‘n’ Twenty which sits, right royally, on her reverent palm, a virtual pedestal, held aloft. To the lascivious, thrashing strains of Ackadacka’s TNT, the coveted pastry’s lip is stripped off, in the manner of a dress, negligee, shirt, or something, very deliberately torn in a heaving, steamy bedroom scene. This metaphorical bodice-ripping foreplay is topped, though, by MF’s sensual squeezing of the twenty-cent sauce sachet, which results in an epileptic dispersal of blood-red ooze.

Paul Cordeiro’s second suck of the saveloy, it must be said, seems like something of a filler. It might sound a lot like it, but it’s actually no offence to the man himself, it’s just that it’s all a bit Chippendale. This time out, he sports a prize belt festooned with soft toys which, naturally, he proffers for fondling. It’s the sort of thing Aunty Mavis might wet her underwear over, Thursday night at the bowlo, but seems like a shameful squandering of Wilson Pickett’s Land of 1000 Dances. Mind you, PC is quite the go-go dancer.

Then, the emergence of Holly Durant and Lily Paskas. Not that you would’ve recognised either, even if you were her mother, since they were covered in mighty big hair. No, it wasn’t that they’d missed their electrolysis appointment. Rather, they’d reinvented themselves as dreaded Byron Bay backpackers, or Neanderthals, delivering a primal performance very relative to the primal sounds of The White Stripes. This was a real genre-bender: a kind of rock ‘n’ roll burlesque.

Cordeiro was back for Lou Bega’s Mambo Number 5, but it was Davey’s fantastical Glory, in which she donned antlers, choreographed to Portishead’s dreamy groove (Glory Box) that was more noteworthy and arresting. Here she was, the epitome of calm, with a heart in her hands dripping blood. It might as well have been hers.

And, for something completely different again, Anna Lumb took to the trapeze athletically, artistically, erotically and precariously, in stilettos, to the brassy accompaniment of Bowie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.

But it was Finucane who again took the biscuit as The Queen of Hearts, to the uncompromising hardcore of Barbaque’s Analirritatio. But it was our fancies that were tickled, rather than our bottoms bothered, by the queen’s 150 red balloons, which she carried on and about her person, only to explode them in novel ways, as if it was already NYE once more.

After an interval, Kaos reigned as Minnie the Moocher, providing another opportunity for her skilful, sassy hoopla.

Pamela Rabe then fronted in a full-length, figure-hugging, black leather gown, about the only garment that would’ve sufficed for her erotic address to the nation, a tract cleverly adapted by F & S from Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and an ancient Sumerian poem, circa 1200, in Who Will Plough My Vulva. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing it more justice than Rabe, who makes it a dramatic anthem to feminine empowerment, dressed-up and disguised as a terrific tease. With characteristically creepy, gothic music composed by Darrin Verhagen (Shinjuku Thief), it was a dark delight. Rabe becomes Inanna, queen of heaven and earth, when she implores: “Who will plough my vulva; who will plough my high field; who will plough my wet ground; who will station the ox there?”

Durant & Paskas (whose duet of surnames also sound as if it should carry a royal seal) return, veritably possessed, mesmerised, with Jazz Is The Devil, a tremendously visceral, posthumous homage, in effect, to the disreputable legend that was and is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. To his wildly theatrical, almost purely evil rendition of I Put A Spell On You, they descend into uncontrollable states. Screamin’ Jay would’ve revelled in these young women collapsing under the weight of their own desire.

Finucane was back, in an elegant white evening gown, holding aloft a bowl, striding pointedly down the catwalk, keeping us intrigued to the point of killing curiosity. Moby’s Oil provided the aural lubricant. as MF went from delicately sipping red soup from a silver spoon to slurping and spilling it everywhere. It’s everything your grandmother told you never to do, which is what makes this small, metaphorical mischief so very,very enjoyable.

Anna Lumb donned the stilettos once more for The Gin Walk; as the name implies, a teetering tip-toe across a constantly replenished row of bottles. It wash’t particularly riveting, but I’m sure the degree of difficulty was and risk of injury was high. Anyway, at least we got to hear Iggy & The Stooges’ Dirt (from one of the vinyl albums in my collection I prize most highly, Funhouse).

Durant resurfaced as Salome, to present her interpretation of the infamous dance of the seven veils, made all the more sultry and alluring by Donna Summer’s pulsatingly erotic I Feel Love. Yowser!

Davey was  a showgirl for The Angels’ Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again. Of all the vignettes (other than Cordeiro’s) this seemed somewhat throwaway, which isn’t to say I didn’t let loose with the customary rejoinders with exceeding relish. I like to think I was one of the first to dispense with any notion of chic, or cool, and proudly show my suburban roots. Given F & S’s forays into the outback, I can well imagine this wearing down any resistance that might prevail where beer-swillin’ blokes are concerned.

The penultimate piece de resistance was Finucane’s Get Wet For Art! A collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria, it deploys Prince’s Purple Rain. If you’re given an umbrella, don’t be blasé. You’re going to need it.

Cordeiro led the whole company in a Bollywood finale, scored by Panjabi MC’s dynamic Jatt Ho Giya Sharabee. Before long many of the audience were on their feet dancing to Abba. Middle-of-the-road? Maybe. But for the most part, F & S’s burlesque hour (or two) isn’t just risqué, but risky. Which suits my standards for this discrete artform (and, at its best, it is) to a tee.

The last words go to Finucane: “It’s like a Venus flytrap. Once you get in, you don’t want to get out.’ And, ‘it’s that bit of grit that makes the pearl.”

The details: The Burlesque Hour (Glory Box Edition) plays the York Theatre, Seymour Centre until November 25. Tickets on the venue website.

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