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?
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.