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Between the Sheets with Polly Rae, Entrepreneuress of Burlesque…

Polly Rae, entrepreneuress of burlesque

Tomorrow night, burlesque entrepreneur (entrepreneuress?) Polly Rae is fronting the first of seven summer shows called Between The Sheets at the Underbelly’s Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank. It is her fourth year there.

“Why that title?” I asked her.

“Because it’s a show about sex. I am the host and invite everyone into my boudoir to share my fantasies and sensualities.”

“Not a one-woman show?” I asked.

“No. There are eight of us. It’s a variety-cabaret-burlesque show. We perform as an ensemble but they also have individual acts. We have circus performers, male dancers, a clown-comedienne. We’ve been refining this show with various different casts for 4 or 5 years. This is our fourth season here at the Underbelly. The core cast has remained the same.

“The main headliner is an artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a burlesque fire-breather. We call her The bad ass of burlesque, the wild child, the rocker, the whisky drinker, the whip cracker. Lilly SnatchDragon is our hilarious, glamorous clown-comedienne. And we have Beau Rocks. In her act, she explores the more erotic and sensual side of burlesque – a contemporary act with UV lighting and UV paint. Quite a saucy, futuristic act.”

“Burlesque is stripping,” I said.

“Yes,” agreed Polly. “It is absolutely stripping, pioneered in 1940s and 1950s America and, obviously, Dita Von Teese has popularised it for this generation. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years.”

“Do your parents have a problem with stripping?”

“If you define the physical act then, yes, of course, it’s stripping. But the context is different from stripping in a gentleman’s club. Burlesque is very much about theatre and old-school Variety. It has the combinations of dance, comedy, singing, dancing and the various skills we use.

“So my parents don’t mind at all; they’re very encouraging and they love it. They come to see my shows… My mum brought me up on Madonna… Madonna in the 1980s!… What kind of influence was that?

Ensemble assemble Between The Sheets

“I like to think this show is quite titillating. I like to think it is quite hot under the collar. But it’s not explicit. If there are any moments that are explicit, we soften it with humour. I think it’s very important to have humour in my shows. You’ve got to balance sexiness with wit.”

“Parents in show business?” I asked.

“Not at all. Really, my influence came from my mother bringing me up on Madonna. My dad was an architect. Being an architect was his profession but, as a hobby, he worked on Gerry Anderson TV programmes as a model maker. He worked on Stingray. One of his main shows was Terrahawks… There was a big spaceship; he designed and made that.”

“But not a performer…” I said.

“I grew up loving performance,” Polly told me, “but I didn’t go to stage school. I originally wanted to be a special effects make-up artist. That was my original dream. My dad and I used to watch horror movies – science fiction alien movies and Freddie Krueger and so on. My dad actually worked on the movie Alien.

“When I was born, he moved back up North to Preston and his movie career was over. He was supposed to go and do the second movie – Aliens – but then my mum got pregnant with me and he chose not to carry on, which I feel a bit guilty about: he might have been in Hollywood now.

“I was a beauty therapist out of school. Then I moved from Preston to London and met lots of performers and that changed my life. At 19 years old, I flew to New Orleans and worked on the cruise ships for a few years, in the Caribbean.”

“As a beautician?” I asked.

Polly Rae – “a culture-building exposure” – reddy for anything

“Yes. But what was great was I got to see performers’ lives. It was such a culture-building exposure, meeting people from all parts of the world. I made friends with a lot of the dancers and singers and started to think: Ah! This is quite interesting!

“I decided I wanted to be a Social Host – like MCs who run the games, host the karaoke or whatever – but I couldn’t get that job because I had no experience. So, long story short, I started training in dance and singing and, around 2005, I met Jo King who runs the London Academy of Burlesque.”

“2005,” I suggested, “is around the time burlesque became respectable? Stripping was seen as sleazy but burlesque was acceptable showbiz.”

“I didn’t know what burlesque was,” replied Polly. “That was in 2005. My first performance as a burlesque artist was 2006.”

“Which was,” I said, “roughly when it started to get profile in the UK.”

“Yes,” said Polly. “Dita Von Teese had started slowly, slowly chipping away at the mainstream in the 1990s but, come the early 2000s, that’s when London cabaret clubs started. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club had a show called The Whoopee Club. Then there was a show at Cafe de Paris called The Flash Monkey and a show Lady Luck and a venue called Volupté opened.

“I started working at Volupté and at the Soho Revue Bar – formerly the Raymond Revue Bar. I jumped on the bandwagon at the perfect time. I was in there just BEFORE everyone wanted to go and see a burlesque show and I formulated a troupe of girls called The Hurly Burly Girlies.

Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies troupe went West End

“Being a burlesque artist, you have to have a gimmick and my thing was singing and I had my troupe of girls with me. There were no troupes at that time.”

“What sort of singing?” I asked. “Ethel Merman?”

“More of a pop ’80s route…”


“Exactly! Exactly! And it worked a treat, John! I wanted to try to be different and to appeal to a wider audience. I figured: If my audience knows the music, I’m gonna get a wider crowd. We worked on musical arrangements of modern songs. We made modern songs sound old. And we did pop songs but we dressed vintage.”

“Post Busby Berkeley?”

If you got it, flaunt it!

“Yes, post Busby Berkeley, for sure. I took a lot of inspiration from Dita Von Teese in the beginning and I think her styling is late-1940s/early 1950s. I also did the whole 1950s bump ’n’ grind thing to classic music like Benny Goodman. We just sort-of mixed it all up, really.”

“So,” I said, “You developed this over time.”

“Yes. I met a gentleman called William Baker, who was Kylie Minogue’s artistic director/visual stylist for the last 25 years. I told him I wanted to make the biggest burlesque show the world – or maybe the UK and Europe – had ever seen. I wanted to create the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows.

“I thought at the time I just wanted a stylist: someone to help me on my way a little bit and help me improve the production values. But William said: If I’m going to come and work with you, I want to direct it and bring in my entire creative team.

“And so we created The Hurly Burly Show. It started in 2010 at the Leicester Square Theatre, then we did a season the following year at the Garrick Theatre and, the following year, a season at the Duchess Theatre. After that, we did it in Australia and South Africa. We had a good 3 or 4 years of wonderful madness.”

“Cabaret and burlesque,” I said, “are colourful, kitsch, camp and…”

“Exactly,” said Polly. “It’s diverse, it’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s so unbelievably individual. That’s what I especially love about it.”

“So where can you go now?” I asked. “You have peaked.”

“Being on a West End stage was amazing,” said Polly, “and I won’t stop saying it was the most incredible experience of my life. However, as a burlesque/cabaret artist, when you’re in the Garrick Theatre, there are two balconies and you can’t see anything because the spotlight is blinding you and I can’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Between The Sheets – summer shows

“The intimacy in the Spiegeltent is amazing. You can connect with the audience. In Between The Sheets, we are walking in the aisles, physically sitting on people, stealing their drinks. It’s almost immersive. You can see everybody’s face. I can connect.

“It’s not a West End theatre, but I’m much happier in the Spiegeltent. I feel much more at home and stronger as an artist. My goal is I want to see people react, whether I make them laugh, cry, feel turned-on. The satisfaction of seeing that achieved is amazing.”

“If you have the house lights full up, though,” I suggested, “the audience can feel threatened.”

“Yes, you have to get the balance right. It’s not about having lights up; it’s the proximity. And choosing the right people in the audience.”

“So,” I said, “upcoming, you have…?”

Between the Sheets is my summer project and I like to think we might get picked up and do other little tours here and there. But I also have a residency at The Hippodrome every Saturday night. I also manage the dancers there and do some MCing for corporate parties. And I’m getting married next year.”

“Is he is showbusiness?”

“He’s in hospitality. His name is Eric; he’s from the United States; he’s been here for five years.”

“He’s a lucky man,” I told her.

Polly and Eric

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At the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday, stories of Hugh Grant kept popping up

Hugh Grant: four references and a barring

Yesterday was a long and confusing day even by Edinburgh Fringe standards.

It started when someone told me he had heard the actor Hugh Grant had been refused entry to Eddie Pepitone’s trendy Bloodbath show in Just The Tonic at The Tron (a venue not to be confused with The Tron) AND Hugh had also been refused entry to the even trendier late-night Set List show in Just The Tonic at The Caves (not to be confused with Just The Tonic at The Tron).

So I e-mailed Matt Kirshen, who programmes the Set List show:

“Did Hugh Grant get refused entry to Set List last night?” I asked. “I heard he also got turned away from Eddie Pepitone’s show.”

Matt replied: “Just Eddie, at the Tron. He apparently decided not to try for another show after that.”

Then I went to the TO&ST Showcase – promoting Time Out and Soho Theatre’s new awards for best cabaret shows at the Fringe. The showcase was compered by incomparable Miss Behave (who is also compering my Malcolm Hardee Awards Show this coming Friday – the Edinburgh Fringe is all about promotion). She was justifiably evangelical about the current British cabaret scene. It was only last year that the Edinburgh Fringe Programme included a separate Cabaret section for the first time… and, judging from shows I have seen this year, a lot of the most original comedy material actually appears in cabaret shows.

At the 2007 Fringe, Arthur Smith curated “Arturart”

I had to leave after an hour to go see Arthur Smith get carried up Arthur’s Seat (the dormant volcano which overlooks Edinburgh) in a sedan chair for a show called This Arthur’s Seat Gala Belongs to Lionel Richie organised by Barry Ferns (often mis-spelled as Barry Fern) who changed his name by deed poll to Lionel Richie (not to be confused with the singer Lionel Richie).

Alas, the description of the meeting point for the start of Arthur Smith’s sedan chair ascent of Arthur’s Seat – meet at a lake – was a bit vague, so the BBC and Arthur and I turned up at the wrong lake.

As I did not want to get stuck up Arthur’s Seat (ooh no, missus), I made my excuses and walked back to town. I will see Arthur Smith again on Friday, when he appears in the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show (the Edinburgh Fringe is all about promotion) which, at its end, will merge into one of Arthur’s late night Alternative Tours of the Royal Mile. These have been known to end in nudity and arrests. I can only hope we can be so lucky.

As I walked back to town from the bottom of Arthur’s Seat, several taxis passed me, but I am a Scot brought up among Jews and am overweight, so I ignored them. I also got a phone call from the comedian who had told me about Hugh Grant. He (the comedian) told me that yes, indeed, the previous gossip had been wrong and he (Hugh Grant) had NOT been refused entry to Set List, only to Eddie Pepitone’s show. I began to wonder if I was really that interested.

“He (Hugh Grant) was turned away from Just The Tonic at The Tron,” I was told, “even though he had tickets for himself and his friends but his friends didn’t have ID even though they were clearly of age so that’s what happened.”

Laura Levites flyers a dog yesterday

On my way to the Assembly Rooms (not to be confused with the rival Assembly venue), to see Appointment With The Wicker Man, I bumped into flame-haired American temptress Laura Levites whose fame, thanks to this blog, has now reached India. She was flyering on the Royal Mile for her American Girlfriend show.

“Did you hear Hugh Grant got refused entry to Eddie Pepitone’s show last night?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “But I wouldn’t turn him away if he turned up at my show. I mean, I talk about him in my show. He’s one of my reasons for me wanting to be here in Britain. Cos every American girl wants Hugh Grant. We wanna live Love Actually.

Laura was being successful with her flyering technique, which included befriending a passing Dalmatian dog but, turning another corner, I heard a less experience flyerer try:

“Anyone fancy some comedy?… Free Biscuits!”

By this time, the Dalmatian had left. Bad timing.

Eventually, I got to the Assembly Rooms venue in George Street (not to be confused with the rival Assembly venue in George Square). I had a tea outside by the Spiegeltent temporarily in the middle of George Street (not to be confused with the two Spiegeltents temporarily at Assembly in George Square) and I went in to the Assembly Rooms to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Appointment With the Wicker Man.

Appointment With the W(h)icker Man

The full-house audience loved it. I liked it a lot, but thought it was a dog’s dinner. Unlinked to the Dalmatian. The first ten minutes (a guestimate) were wonderful. The plot’s affectation is that a stage version of the cult movie The Wicker Man is being performed by an amateur dramatic group, the Loch Parry Players, in an isolated Highland community. The audience are even given a fake programme for The Whicker Man (sic) as they go in.

The original movie was bizarre enough to begin with and it might be thought to be beyond parody because it is beyond weird (I am a great fan). And, for the first ten minutes, this production had enormous fun simply by using the original film script, the original music (the movie is heavily musiced with songs) and having fun with the cadences of the accents.

Alas, someone somewhere seems to have lost confidence in simply doing The Wicker Man with a few nods to it being staged by amateurs in a Highland hall and written an original story about the am dram group with far too many dramatic devices in it. KIS KIS. Keep It Simple. Keep It Simple. Just staging The Wicker Man is a bizarre enough idea. The whole production felt like a series of compromises and over-complications by a camel-designing committee with over-commercial attempts getting in the way of the original camp vision. There was also one bit of unnecessary female nudity. Not the famous Britt Ekland dancing-against-the-door scene (which was done very humorously with fake boobs and enough pubic hair to knit a Scottie dog) but a totally gratuitous bit of unnecessary real nudity. I can only presume this was added to somehow make it more commercial. Mistake. I am all for nudity in its right place – in the Royal Mile, up a lamp post, but not gratuitously here.

Very enjoyable, but it needs two more script re-writes and cuts.

John Robertson’s outdoor show on The Mound last night

After that very enjoyable if frustrating show, I went to see Australian John Robertson’s The Old Whore, an extraordinary dissection of his own very odd family background. I only saw half the show in the venue – the General Assembly building of the Church of Scotland – because the whole show ended up outside, halfway down The Mound, with John Robertson semi-naked, standing atop railings… More about this in a future blog.

After the show, I met up with my temporary flatmate Lewis Schaffer, still concerned at the possible backlash from his use of the word “paralysed” in his guest spot on a Storytelling show the previous night. He had asked me if he should blog about it and I had said Yes. He titled it The Worst Gig of The Fringe and typically started with the opening sentence: “The worst part about doing comedy is that sometimes the audience winds up hating me…”

Did I mention the Malcolm Hardee Show?

As even Lewis Schaffer is younger than me – at this Fringe, I am beginning to feel like the Queen Mother in a hallucinatory version of High School Musical – at 1.00am he headed off to the VIP Loft Bar at the Gilded Balloon. I headed home to sleep.

As I walked home, I got a text from Laura Levites:

“I am in the Abattoir Bar at the Udderbelly. Hugh Grant is here. I gave him a flyer for my show.”

I wondered if Hugh would like to take part in my Russian Egg Roulette contest at the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on Friday.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about promotion.

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