Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Or, When is Burlesque not Burlesque? When It’s a Play
Directed by Anna Girvan & Nancy Medina
Written by Helen K Parker, Rebecca Megson, Heather Lister, Eleanor Blaney & Carrie Rhys Davies
At the Bristol Bierkeller Theatre– 19th – 22nd and 25th November 2012
First off an introduction to the play from the Bierkeller:
Dirty Stop Outs is an evening of six new pieces of writing inspired by the Bierkeller space. This evening of new writing is more than just a random selection of local writers, it is an event. Six writers were selected to write for a specific area of the Bierkeller’s inspiringly dark and deborched club. Each were given a different space up to 20mins and maximum 4 actors. All writers come with their own style but the same theme of one night in the Bierkeller Night Club. Come and see how the writers responded and how the evening unfolds between exploring each area.
I love going to see plays, and this was an incredibly different experience than I was used to, but I thoroughly enjoyed the way the space was used. The actors drew attention to themselves to indicate where the action would be taking place, and the audience would relocate to each area of the venue to watch the next piece.
This worked surprisingly well! I saw it on the Thursday night so I suspect it may have improved throughout the week, and on that night it was smooth and effortless. It also worked well because it drew the audience in, and in a way, made the Bierkeller the recurring character in each piece.
Each was very different, in both content and execution, giving the audience a series of mini plays to make up the whole, in one way or another burlesque featuring in a couple of the pieces, but here I will review the entire play:
One Last One – At the Bar
I have to say for the first minute of this I wondered if I would actually enjoy my evening. I had attended the play alone and the rest of the audience were in couples or groups (and quite a mixed bag at that!). And this play, to say the least, started very confrontationally.
The story itself followed a drunk city boy (modern yuppy) trying to get one last drink from the barman who was refusing to serve him. It opened with the drunk man insulting some of the audience closest to him, all of whom took it in good humour and laughed. When the interaction started with the barman, this play picked up and my concerns were alleviated. I really enjoyed the performances of the two actors, but the material felt a bit old – saying nothing new about the class divide it was trying to illustrate.
Dancing to the Moon – On the Dance Floor
This was my least favourite piece of the evening, and I’d go as far as to say I struggled to enjoy it. The acting was stiff, and it took a while to warm up, but the acting started to improve. Each of the girls in the piece had their own background – the party girl with a preference for no ties sex, the arguably main character was a woman celebrating her divorce and finally their mutual friend/facilitator with her own interesting past. The crux of this inevitably became the conflict between the party girl, advocating “sex like a man” and the divorcee who we discover split from her husband due to his wish to emulate porn style sexual acts with her, believing this was “normal”.
This is a totally valid issue that has been written on many times, the unrealistic expectations of men who watch (too much?) porn. But in this context, it was set as one side of an argument against the idea of no strings sex. It just didn’t work for me – they are two completely separate issues. The whole thing felt laboured – despite some explanatory exposition, it still felt weird that the party girl was at essentially a stranger’s divorce party.
I was struggling with this piece already when it completely lost me at the mention of burlesque – with the divorcee expressing her anger at the acceptability of such things as lap dancing, strip clubs and empowerment through burlesque. Had this been a conversation I had actually overheard in a nightclub I might have stopped and had words and at this point at to bite my tongue. Maybe it spoke of the character’s naivety of such things, but I still didn’t like the way it was portrayed to the audience – partly because it was hard to know how you were supposed to feel about these characters and how much stock you should put into their opinions.
A conversation after the show made me realise why this piece didn’t work for me – the ages of the actresses and their wardrobe, didn’t quite fit. It may have worked better and been more believable/relatable with more mature women and less flashy clothes.
Swoop – At the Pool Table
This was one of the more interesting pieces of the evening, but even so it felt strangely out of the place in the setting. It told the story a young, charismatic man with anger problems, his mournful mother, and a young prostitute he picks up at the club.
It’s an unexpected and powerful play, opening with the young man playing pool and joking with the audience, a lovely jack the lad. But as the story unfolds we learn he has an abusive side, and he assaults the prostitute as his mother laments the child she left to be raised by others. The play focused on each character individually, with perhaps the most engaging part being the monologue of the prostitute – her story, how she feels about her life. Some amazing writing!
All in all, this piece was fantastic, well acted, well written and completely unexpected. The only thing that distracted from it, was that to me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why, it felt a little out of place.
Toilets – In the Gents
At this point, due to size constraints, the audience was split in two, half taken to the toilets and half backstage. This was imaginatively done, with the barman making an announcement from the DJ set up that everyone stamped on the back of their hand on their way in has a free back stage pass.
I did not have a stamp, and so stood there as a guy on his way to the loos encouraged the rest of the audience to follow him. Surprisingly, this does often happen on drunken nights out, I find!
This was one of my favourite pieces of the evening. It started with two fellas getting high in the toilets. The lights would go out to mark the passage of time and as the night went on not only did they get even worse for wear but the story smoothly unfolded. Brilliantly acted, the story followed one of the guys moaning to the other about his problems, quickly boring and then pissing off his younger mate. What made this one really pop was the “guest appearance” of people from the other pieces – although there was an occasional cross over in the other pieces to tie them together, this piece used that idea more extensively and to greater effect than any of the others. The drunk guy from the bar came in and peed several times, and the prostitute hotfooted it with the young guy’s stash. It was light-hearted and jovial throughout but reached a hilarious climax when you discovered that the subject of the man’s woes was his loss of custody and lack of access to his pet dog – an old gag, but done so well that you couldn’t help but laugh. We were evicted from the toilets at the end of the piece when a cleaner arrived.
A time to reset the bathroom and backstage scenes, but given the limited size of the audience, this felt a bit too long a time. But this might just have been my issue – as I was on my own several people kept looking at me expectantly as if I might be one of the actors about to start another scene. I did consider it…
Backstage Burlesque – Backstage
This started with an apology from the barman and announcement that it was the people without stamps that could go backstage. This elicited groans from the audience, like to your dad’s bad jokes, which was amusing.
I may be bias, (I didn’t make her write this, honest! TL) but this was my joint favourite with the Toilets scene, and incidentally they were both from the same writer. But that said, the two pieces couldn’t have been more different.
It starts with the dancer, our very own Tuesday Laveau, opening her case and starting to get herself ready for the show. The audience, dotted around on chairs and sofas or leaning against the wall, seemed uncertain as to what was happening at first, primarily due to the silence. Then as she put on some music to get ready to, her energy came out and infected the room. Looking around I could see all the women were smiling, some bobbing along to the music. The guys took a bit longer to get into it and one older guy looked slight shocked (and possibly titillated) for the first few minutes. The scene built almost like a routine on stage – with no dialogue at all from the dancer, but her actions drawing the audience in as she got dressed, put on her pasties, did her stretches.
And then the phone rang. This was the crux of the unspoken story. As fun as it had been watching the dancer going through her own little backstage rituals, the ringing phone stopped everything. The dancer, her face visible in the mirrors on the dressing table looks at the phone and is plainly trying to decide whether to pick up or not. You can feel the agonising over the decision and her relief when the ringing stops. When the phone rang for a second time you could sense the audience willing her to pick it up so they could learn her story. But she doesn’t and now she has to rush to finish getting ready, nerves are starting to get to her as it’s unsettled her and thrown her schedule. She’s ready, she gets to the door, she takes a moment to pause, compose. And then she heads out onto the stage leaving us to be unceremoniously, if comically, evicted from the room by the young man from the pool table.
Speaking with both Tuesday and the director after the show, I mentioned how it was interesting to see a burlesquer in this context of having no one else to get ready with, rarely are we in dressing rooms with no other performers of some ilk. It was fascinating to see the difference between that and the hype of a backstage full of half naked ladies. They mentioned that that was part of the story – she was alone because she had alienated herself from other performers one way or another, this was a lady with issues. I don’t feel that necessarily came across, but it didn’t need to. For the audience the story was in wanting to know what had gone unsaid. We all left there wishing she had answered the phone so we could know more (nosey buggers that we are!), but at the same time, know that the power in the piece was us never knowing – leaving us to create our own stories for this mysterious woman.
One Last One (reprise) – At the Bar
We revisit the drunk and the barman – the drunk now bloodied and legless, the barman off duty and trying to decide whether it’s really his problem. Again, although well acted, I still didn’t quite connect with this piece and it started to border on preachy while it drums into us that money can’t buy you happiness – again an old subject done many a time. That said, it wasn’t terrible and the actors played it out convincingly.
How to Make an Exit – At the Exit
I had stupidly skimmed a few reviews of Dirty Stop Outs before seeing the show and they seemed universal in their praise of this piece. So unfortunately, it left me a little underwhelmed.
On the plus side, the actress was fabulous (Jesse Meadows.) She joined us as we were dotted around the bar, and led us drunkenly to the exit. A natural comic, she played the part well and her little asides felt very unscripted. It did start to feel as though it had gone on a little long, and the repeated poetical phrases seemed sort of out of place. But her list of rules on how to make an exit were wittily written and superbly delivered, ending the night on a high note.
Just as the night seemed to draw to a close two of the actors ran down to the exit to tell us they were having a lock in and inviting us back up to the bar. As we reached the bar we were greeted with the line up and invited to applaud. Bringing us to a final end of the evening.
Overall it was a fabulous night and unusual experience, possibly not to everyone’s taste but well executed on many levels. The only thing that has seemed odd to me is the lack of focus on the actors in all the publicity. The focus has been on the writers as they had been challenged to create mini plays for this space. However, it feels little acknowledgment has gone to the actors who brought the pieces to life, and you’d be hard pushed to find a cast list online. Despite this I would happily pay to see works written by some of these writers again, most especially Eleanor Blaney who wrote both Toilets and Backstage Burlesque.
Saying it as it is!