It mightn’t be the greatest show on earth exactly (although it probably comes surprisingly close), but it’s what our grandparents might’ve called ‘a good night out’. A very good night out.
La Soirée plants its tongue in its cheek for a couple of hours of non-stop, full-on, breathtaking, arousing, downright dangerous (God only knows what they tell their insurers, if they can get any) entertainment, thrills and, occasionally, spills; albeit deliberate. It features the stars of La Clique which, in case you’re outside it, was the name of a ‘variety’ show conceived and constructed in honour of the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. It started life in a spiegeltent and continued as a fringe event for some years but, in 201o, with its name-change to Soiree, it signalled grander ambitions.
The show, in one form, incarnation, or another, has been seen, internationally (New York, Stockholm, Paris, you name it) at countless festivals and has attracted prestigious awards; among them the Laurence Olivier for Best Entertainment. The genius behind it is creative director, producer, MC and all-round showman, Brett Haylock; a latter-day, reincarnated, Antipodean Barnum.
Haylock’s genius is in finding and recruiting the most diverse, bizarre, eccentric, brazen, talented performers on the face of the earth. In London (they filled the Hippodrome for nine months), as La Clique, the show has opened with Gerry Connolly, as QE2, a role he plays, perhaps, better than the old duck herself. As La Soirée, the likes of Paul Capsis are also in the tent.
It’s quite a confection: an effervescing test-tube, in which are placed approximately equal parts magic, mischief, circus, cabaret, burlesque and twisted vaudeville. To warm up the crowd in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House, brass band recordings blare out at aggravating volume. The space has been reconfigured in the round, so as to emulate a big top, or even spiegeltent, ambience. It looks to be a diverse and quite different crowd to the ones who might otherwise frequent the venue.
Haylock wanders around in a stridently pinstriped suit with red satin trim. Finally, a little behind schedule, following a frenetic recorded rendition of the William Tell Overture, Haylock introduces the show, encouraging a voluble response. Two bowler-hatted gentleman, also pinstriped, stroll onto the small, round stage. One reads the Financial Times. The other defers to his instructions. Suddenly, the first lies down. And so begins a sequence of man-on-man handstanding and other acrobatics, of a calibre rarely, if ever, encountered and during which the first man continues to browse his paper. The audience roars when they strip off their finery, to reveal rippling, taut torsos. Almost every successive act is desperately hard to follow and this, suitably entitled The English Gents, is one of the hardest. The irony of rigid (in some ways, at least), stiff-upper-lipped British pillars of the establishment flexing like India rubbermen isn’t lost, that’s for sure. Such acute wit isn’t typically associated with acrobats.
With barely a beat in-between, the next act is up. If I recall the running order correctly, it’s Le Gateau Chocolat, a bear of a black man, with a deep, dark, rich, resonant voice reminiscent of Chef (Isaac Hayes) and the most facetious, overdone drag you’ve probably ever seen, this side of Priscilla. He has no compunction in French kissing unsuspecting bald men, feeling up other men’s wives, or burying his surprisingly delicate hand in another man’s crotch. He encourages one man to feel him up and lap-dances with yet another. No, this show isn’t for the faint of heart. Later on, he dishes up a distinctive and poignant take on Radiohead’s Creep, but begins with Nessun Dorma.
The audience is mightily impressed, but somewhat apprehensive about his unpredictability. Or was that just me? He’s a whole lotta love and there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. One is left, not necessarily willingly, let alone desirably, pondering the question he poses, ‘do he really taste like chocolate?’ All I know is his vocals are melting.
Captain Frodo is a bug-eyed Norwegian longhair with a winning smile. It isn’t hard to discern the inspiration for his moniker: he looks for all the world like a Tolkien character. As he explains, he was born with a medical condition colloquially known as double-jointedness. This is fair warning, to the squeamish, of the contortions about to take place. Not only does he bend his slight frame into seemingly impossible positions, he does so while keeping a running commentary going. He has unwavering cool, even when tied in knots. When he falls off the stage, he patiently, diligently, hoists himself back up, coming to the mike to reflect: “So far, so good.” He’s thoroughly engaging and has impeccable comic timing. But what he does to his body is no laughing matter; gradually pushing it through the head of a 12-inch (diameter) tennis racquet. Then, a 10 inch; “twice as hard, approximately”. Ouch! Later, in a performative Russian doll routine, he returns with a bucket, from which he pulls a smaller can, progressively working his way up (or down) to something about the size of a paint tin. Without his feet ever leaving the successively upended containers, he upends the next, until he’s teetering on the smallest. All this atop a piano!
I should stress, again, there are no safety nets; no soft landings. They’ve thrown out the OH&S manual and incinerated it.
Jess Love’s hula hoopla might be a short interlude, but it ups the ante on any such act you might’ve seen to date. She doesn’t tease, starting with one hoop and almost tediously boosting the number incrementally. She goes for broke, swivelling more hoops than you can count. While doing her tricks (as with other acts, one can’t even imagine the rehearsal involved in deriving such spectacularity or flawless precision), she acts out a little scene, too, and veritably overflows with personality. Plus, as has been well-documented by other (male) critics, she’s ravishing. One way or another, you can’t take your eyes off her.
Speaking of hoops, New Yorker Bret Pfister’s high-flying performance, to an ’80s synthpop soundtrack, showcases just how supple and sensual the male body can be. Billed as neo-Weimar, the shoe fits, thanks to Pfister’s electric intensity and emo aesthetic; pumped-up punked-up, searingly sexual, it brands an indelible impression, like a hot iron on a Hereford heifer.
Mooky Cornish is kind of like a Canadian Barbara Cartland meets Bette Midler. Diminutive, cherubic and quick-witted, she recruits an audience member to complete her act, as a golden years of Hollywood style femme fatale. Good-natured Steve, a young teacher, is cajoled into regaling her with Shakespeare and comedic takes on romantic cliches, then joining her in miming love ballads. His cues are written on home-made post-it notes, all over her body, made plain each time she adopts a new pose. It’s cute, clever and utterly charming.
“Hailing from Spain, via Croydon”, England, Ursula Martinez commands attention in every possible way. I can practically guarantee you’ll never witness a more self-assured striptease, nor any imbued with the depth or razor-edged wit Martinez, ah, dons. First appearing looking consummately corporate, she produces a tiny, scarlet, silk handkerchief, only to make it disappear before our very eyes. She rediscovers it in various parts of her clothing, which more (or less) necessitate removal of garments until, stark naked, she manages, still, to find it. Now that’s what I call magic. David bloody Copperfield can’t do that. And Martinez is nothing if not versatile, later fronting with a guitar and hilariously imitating her (Spanish) mother, with the thickest of accents, punctuated with flamenco flourishes.
Finally, Berlin-born gymnast David O’Mer (chuckle), aka Bath Boy, gets you wet, in his soaked jeans, while stunning with his aerial, but sometimes submerged, ballet. One slip and it’s all over, red rover, but this built-like-a machine man is never in any real danger of making a bathtime boo-boo.
La Soirée is all about joie de vivre. You’ll know your alive; for a couple of hours, at least.
The details: La Soirée plays the Sydney Opera House’s Studio until February 12. Tickets on the venue website.