Review: Miss Polly Rae’s ‘Between the Sheets’ at Underbelly Festival

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I’m a huge fan of Polly, the woman beside me says: she’s the best in the business. We’re sitting on the far left of a crowded semi-circle that cups the stage. I can’t hear her exacts words, which are drowned out by both the frank invitations of Khia’s My Neck, My Back and the murmuring crowd around us.

For Underbelly Festival’s debut season, Miss Polly Rae reprises her popular show Between the Sheets with new and exclusive material. Within a cavernous spiegeltent, festooned with lights and disco balls, the lovely MC and her colourful troupe celebrate perversion, outlandish desires, and love in the 21st century. Although advertised as cabaret, the show is more a heady mixture of burlesque, striptease and variety.

Soon the lights are killed and the tent goes pitch black – save for a white, glowing sheet in front of the catwalk. Behind it lies a scene of men and women, angelically silhouetted but suggestively posed. The light flickers softly, and each time the scene shifts: the result is a kind of orgiastic moving picture. It’s a clever little teaser for what proves to be a most excellent and myriad light show.

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The troupe makes a steamy entrance.

A lithe figure, purple skinned with neon hair and lips, struts out of the darkness and across the dim stage. Beau Rocks starts us off with a straightforward, purely sensuous dance routine. It feels like a retro sci-fi mixture of burlesque and rave, with a lush chair routine to really get your rocks off. Between the Sheets is very much a millennial production – from the selection of predominantly 90s popular music, down to the costuming.

Beau less than subtly finishes up by pouring glowing, multicolored paint all over herself. After the applause a sultry voice emerges from the audience. Miss Polly Rae, from where I’m sitting, appears to be wreathed by rays of golden light. She slinks towards the stage, flirting and quipping with audience members along the way, as she introduces herself and the show to newcomers. Rae sweetly explains that we are between her sheets – her world of fantasy and desire.

The acts get along at a brisk pace. Most are elaborate stripteases, varying between pastiche or parody, with suitably elaborate outfits. If they aren’t especially sophisticated, one is easily distracted by both the dazzling lights and the troupe’s physical sensuousness. The women are voluptuous, the men chiseled, and all are very limber. Tom Cunningham and Myles Brown prove to be the mainstay of the show, featuring in at least half of it. They are the most dynamic of the bunch (at least on the ground…) both physically and emotively.

Lily Snatchdragon, as Miss Rae’s long-suffering understudy, provides two coarsely comedic interludes. Her character is a mishmash of Oriental Asian stereotypes – ‘I’m Thai but the kimono is Japanese, deal with it’ – down to the saccharine falsetto. Lily bemoans both her lot in life, (avoiding) to clean up after the rest’s escapades, and her desire for British nationality. The highlight is a very blue parody of I’d Do Anything, including raucous suggestions from backstage. Playing desperation for laughs is a tricky thing, and Lily’s momentum does flag at moments however.

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For their enchanting, gravity-defying performance, the lights were turned down low and the music softened.

 

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Kitty Bang Bang’s first fire-breathing performance.

Personally, my favourite part of the evening is also the least overtly sexual. Acrobatics partners Duo Visage mesmerise the crowd, almost to complete silence, suspended upon an aerial hoop. Intertwined they perform seemingly impossible feats of contortion and agility, lowering each other down and up and around, all while spinning in the air.

It was a tough one to follow. In barely-there lingerie, Kitty Bang Bang sets the stage aflame – literally so, at the climax – twirling torches and swallowing fire. Yet the striptease and the gyrating almost feels perfunctory here, and definitely a distraction. ‘Pony Play’, with Brown and Cunningham as the stallions and Rae the rider, starts promisingly but ends up feeling a little mechanical.

Wrapping up the show, to everyone’s dismay, Miss Rae proffers one last act. Kitty sweeps the stage again in a flowing black dress, a classic femme fatale, for a jaw-dropping reprise. Stripping the dress away, she climbs into a raised basin of water. I soon receive a light showering, while the Polly fan beside me gets soaked. (It’s sour, she says with a little grimace). Sweat and water dripping down my face, I behold the sexpot – clad in fiery, spinning nipple tassels – getting raunchy and wet inside a giant, also flame-rimmed cocktail glass.

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Polly and the cast, all in fresh outfits, make a sparkling farewell.

Between the Sheets is an extravaganza of earthly delights, both carnal and otherwise. Director/Art Director Laura Corcoran and Klare Wilkinson have put together a fun production that rises above itself. The focus is on striptease, and the cast is very comfortable in their own skin. Yet the show makes a balancing act of titillation, erotica, laughter and serious stagecraft. It doesn’t always work, but what strikes me is how earnest the troupe appear to be.

‘Love is what it’s all about’, Polly Rae declares in the finale. I might even believe her.

 

Words: Charles Conway
Photography: Jason Moon/Underbelly Festival
Originally written for Performance Reviewed

Theatre Review: LAURA by Elina Alminas @ Etcetera Theatre

Original Run: 5th and 6th August

A sea of heartbreak. Karaoke. Accusations and dirty laundry. Cake and champagne. Pill-popping and binge-drinking. An awkward turn on the stage by yours truly. Crazy wedding photos. Elina Alminas reprises her one woman show for the Camden Fringe 2017. LAURA is an absurd, painful, sympathetic satire of modern marriage, and keeps the audience on its toes throughout.

Within the cloistered, pub-based Etcetera Theatre, Laura stands in black, empty space. Her mascara is already smudged, her wedding dress unzipped. The groom, Johnny, has skipped out on the wedding; actually he has vanished, for reasons as yet unknown. The bride is left alone to solve the problem of a wedding without a marriage. We, the audience, have been cast as the various guests and attendees. Some will be casually volunteered to participate in her weird revivification of the party.

Almost straight away, I get to experience this for myself. Laura steps forward from the stage and hones in, palms held up to me. She is offering me the honor of a dance. Holding hands, and face to face, we slowly descend the steps. It’s one of those unreal situations which seem suspended in time. That saucer-eyed gaze is unflinching, the smile too beaming: already I feel a little overwhelmed. Onstage she embraces me for a stilted, lumbering slow dance. I hear a shutter click: apparently the photographer is still around…

As the hapless, slightly hysterical bride, Elina Alminas is both riveting and indefatigable.

When we split, Laura gives me a visual appraisal. “Hello there“, she says with a gleam in her eye. Beads of sweat are trickling down my temples. I’m also a head shorter, and almost as disheveled in my jeans and t-shirt. “So, tell me, what kind of smooth talker are you?”

Lacking a suitable retort – or indeed any witty repartee – I go with the first thing that enters my head. “Not a very good one actually”, is my immediate answer. At least it gets a collective tittering. I’m afraid her exact response to that falls on deaf ears; head cast down, I slink back to my seat.

“I’m sorry”, Laura calls out mournfully. She repeats it again, as if hoping for some kind of reassurance.

It’s the most awkwardly comic moment, although not necessarily the funniest. In an attempt to outrun her dismal reality, Laura invents a social gathering wholesale. When required, audience members are pulled in – sometimes literally – to become various characters. The result is an absurdist fantasy, a splatter of wedding-comedy tropes painted on the face of mania. The pianist is reimagined as the white knight for a half-baked elopement, dressed up and paraded in biker gear. The best man calmly steers through an interrogation into Johnny’s whereabouts. Accusations of betrayal are leveled at a sister-in-law, who maintains a stony silence. There is even a shouty rendition of I Will Survive.

Would anyone like some wedding cake?

That’s not to say the experience is all lighthearted, for Alminas maintains a febrile tension throughout. Moreover, even the funniest moments reveal a grim backstory. Johnny is heavily implied to be a jealous and abusive boyfriend; Laura’s friends are not much better. Indeed, the attempt at cajoling together a wedding party really reveals her profound loneliness.

Yet only when she starts devouring pills, chased down by champagne, do things take an overtly dark turn. Lying on the floor, chocolate cake smeared on her face, with the ruins of her self-destruction strewn all around…the photographer takes some portrait snaps.

Laura’s breakdown is a guilty pleasure, but the reasons for it are very much a cause for pained sympathy. Sombre self-reflection unveils a woman at breaking point because of familial, societal and even personal pressures. Johnny is just the latest symptom of a desperate desire for affection. She is both the agent and the victim of her problems; the same, of course, goes for her future. The decision to take care of herself – for herself – is an admirable resolution rather than a fairytale ending.

If what we’ve seen is anything to go by, perhaps it’s better that way.

LAURA was an emotionally compelling, darkly humorous performance by Elina Alminas. Be aware, if you ever catch a show in the future, that you might find yourself (very gently) put on the spot. Thrusting an audience into uncomfortable and/or unexpected situations is a risky proposition; it pays off richly, for what it reveals about Laura – and maybe even ourselves too. The scorned bride might be a familiar story, but Elina has made it a entirely novel experience.

 

Words: Charles Conway
Photography: Elina Alminas
Originally written for Performance Reviewed

Lake Street Drive headline Shepherd’s Bush Empire – Gig Review

Lake Street Dive – Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Thursday 10th November 9.00 – 10.00 PM

Words: Charles Conway (originally for Performance Reviewed)

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Lake Street Dive is an American four-piece band who create genre-defying, label-eluding music, self-described as ‘if the Beatles and Motown had a party together’; throw in the Beach Boys ca. Pet Sounds, and all the best bits of pop music up to the present day, too. That description may read like a lot of waffle. Yet their swift progression from indy-labels and local dance halls to talk-show appearances and international touring is a testament to the band’s talent for clever, catchy and above all fun music.

This year LSD have twice appeared in Europe, anticipating and subsequently promoting their spring release Side Pony. Named for the dubious sideways ponytail, the album is a paean to quirky self-expression set to 70s Rock, Soul, and a touch of Disco. Now at the tail-end of a whistle-stop tour across Europe, Performance Reviewed was invited to their sole London appearance at the O2 Empire in Shepherd’s Bush.

Opening on a thunderous, amped up ‘Godawful Things’; – an ironic gospel hymn to rebound relationships – the theme of the evening was a meteoric, power-rocking celebration interspersed with somewhat calmer moments. The song ‘Spectacular Failure’, a thumping pop song on the album, became an ear-shattering, head-banging wall of sound; the jaunty ‘I Don’t Care About You’ turned into a kind of power ballad to searing indifference; and the surfer-styled ‘Hell Yeah’ went in the opposite direction and became frantic rhythm and blues.

Mid-way through the show, the spotlights dimmed and double-bassist Bridget Kearney came to the fore with a captivating, frenetic solo rooted in West African traditional music. At other concerts it would be jarring and gratuitous; here this virtuoso performance only highlighted the band’s versatility.

On the soulful ‘Saving All My Sinning’; and folk-flavoured ‘Mistakes’, vocalist Rachael Price exercises a range and preciseness that is rarely seen in popular music today. These are also among LSD’s more thoughtful, musing songs – beneath the light-heartedness and flippancy of course.

An honorable mention must also go to an inventive rendition of Lennon’s ‘Broken Glass’; with an a capella style chorus.

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Despite the consummate musicianship, however, there was a mismatch between the aural and visual offerings. The Empire building is a charming period theatre, with both an expansive dance floor in below the stage and galleries high above. Performance Reviewed was initially seated in the latter, with prime viewing of what sounded like a hyperactive, rabble-rousing entertainment.

Yet the theatrics, overwrought yet fundamental to mainstream music, were minimalist at best here. Kearney, and Mike Calabrese (drums), were particularly animated on their instruments – and also mostly out of view. Price is an admirable showrunner, but on this occasion she was working with a rather stiff crowd. (An early attempt to get the crowd to sing along, on the call-response chorus of the funky song ‘Got Me Fooled’, was a non-starter).

As plush and comfortable as our seats were, it just felt wrong to be watching this energetic music being belted out below us, vaguely wriggling and foot-tapping to the beat. Could you imagine someone going to a Chuck Berry, and thinking ‘what I really need is a chair’?

Perhaps the fault was of our own making. My friend and I eventually made our way down to the dance floor and, here, got a better sense of what Lake Street Dive is all about . As the band reached the finale with ‘Call of Your Dogs’, a groove reminiscent of the Bee-Gees greatest hits, the Performance Reviewed team let loose and rocked our inner side ponies. For me, Lake Street Dive hits all the right notes. You might not get the same kick out of their nostalgic genre-bending and pastiche, but they are undeniably very, very good at what they do.

Their live performances only up the ante and the energy, at least musically. If you are persuaded to check them out their future shows, do remember to put on your dancing shoes and limber up; and if there is any seating, skip it.

 

 

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FAULT Reviews: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

DISCLAIMER: This writer only watched the first Hunger Games film the night before attending the preview screening of the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Firehaving missed it in cinemas and somehow dodged the hype . If you have arrived at this review of the sequel uninitiated then watch the first, fantastic, film now.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) soon after their triumph at the annual death match after which the series is named. The audience had been left in a state of uncertainty – relieved at their joint survival, but also apprehensive at the Capitol’s machinations. But the Games only exist to provide measured hope as a temper for a totalitarian fear; and from a wintry opening scene the regime proceeds to pulverize the former with a heavy-handed enforcement of the latter.

The fact that the two films in this series are, in many ways, fairground mirrors of each other, is reflected in their respective straplines. A direct crossover from the books, the first film’s ‘May the Odds be Ever in Your Favour’ is set against ‘Remember Who the Enemy Is’ in revelatory fashion. The first film establishes background before dwelling extensively on the Games ritual. The sequel, in reflecting on the widening fractures, personal and societal, that threaten to unbalance an unnatural status quo, targets the true enemy in the fictional world of Panem.

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Katniss’ first battle in the arena is seen originally as a heroic fight against the cruel establishment: by taking the actions she does, we are led to believe that hers is a direct fight against the unjust hierarchy of Panem. By contrast, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gradually unveils the levels of a deeply embedded dystopia, and the increasingly drastic measures it will take to preserve the illusion of a benevolent dictatorship.

Although the Games remain a horror to the characters, the audience begins to question whether the Game itself is any more dangerous than the world of escalating brutality that lies beyond the dome. Katniss’s dream of escape from the system – apparently promised by her victory in the first film – begins to die with the realisation that she can only lose while its authority is accepted; instead she and her allies must reject, and utterly shatter, the rules that confine them.

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When put together, the two films are cleverly constructed – that much is undeniable. The narrative arc of the first film reflects that of the sequel, albeit in an almost horribly inverted fashion. Where the brutal day to day grind of life in District 12 is seen as nightmarish in the first film, here it is almost seen as an escape from the unmentionable horrors of the Games arena. Similarly, where the first film presented the journey to the Capitol as a fleeting flirtation with fame and fortune – albeit one that the protagonists, knowing what was to come, never really bought into – here it is revealed as a descent into horror.

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Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable

Against this grimmer backdrop the audience meets an even bigger supporting cast: all of them walking clichés at heart, but so vivified by the acting behind them that it doesn’t matter. Some have returned to us even better than before. Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable; Woody Harrelson creates depth for mentor figure Haymitch with finesse; and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background. And of course Caesar (Stanley Tucci), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and many more once again bring Panem to life.

Foremost among the newcomers is Philip Seymour Hoffman, precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch. Sam Claflin performs well as returning tribute Finnick, and the brief scenes for Johanna (Jena Malone) and peace officer Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) were a pleasure. Sadly, this film is too crowded to continue singing their praises – and often the few glimpsed promises were just that. On the other hand The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to intrigue the audience with longevity and friend/foe guessing games, and this writer got caught out until the last few scenes.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) is precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch

The problem with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as the second act in a quadrilogy, is its self awareness. Director Francis Lawrence‘s deconstruction of the dystopia oversteps the mark of what one can achieve in a limited time frame (even though this film is still over 2 hours long). The original introduces the protagonists, the Games and the people at the heart of the insanity; the sequel tries to delve into that and expand on the world of Panem. Where the original has a strong narrative and ends in a satisfying resolution, the sequel is essentially a lengthy set-up for what is to come. Whether intentional or not, the overall mood becomes disjointed.

Although the film brings many of the same positives – among them beautiful visuals, excellent scene building and subtly visceral combat – it also suffers much more seriously from a burgeoning amount of material to cover. Between the drama, tense action and the racing, but sometimes predictable, plot, the audience is overburdened with emotional demands. Lawrence and Hutcherson are great in their roles, but have particularly suffered in this film. Their characters’ personal struggles, and Katniss’s conflict with the all-too-obvious destiny laid out for her, stretch any initial anticipation or interest thin.

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President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has to be judged as part of an ongoing series. Ultimately it is a well made and a thoroughly entertaining watch, but relies on the strength of the original Hunger Games and the promise of more to come. If we had to recommend either of the films as a stand-alone thenwe would likely chose the first. But then, how could you watch either and make a conscious decision not to hunt down the other immediately?

Make no mistake – we’re already looking forward to The Hunger Games part 3.

 

Words by Charles Conway
Edit by Nick Artsruni