Burlesque [Jermyn Street Theatre]

Music by Adam Meggido with book & lyrics by Meggido & Roy Smiles [World premiere production]

Freddie Le Roy – Linal Haft
Lula Malkah – Buster Skeggs
Rags Ryan – Chris Holland
Johnny Reno – Jon-Paul Hevey
Honey Hogan – Alicia Davies
Georgia Mitchell – Sinead Mathias
Amy Delamero – Victoria Serra
Bill Henry – Alex Bartram
Saul Sunday – Jeremiah Harris-Ward

Duncan Walsh-Atkins (musical director & piano), Sam Cable (assistant musical director & piano), Chris Hatton (reeds) and Dave Talisman (drums)

Adam Meggido – Director
Cressida Carré – Choreographer
Michael Bradley – Musical Supervisor
Martin Thomas – Set & Costume Designer
Howard Hudson – Lighting Designer
Anthony Coleridge – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 19 November, 2011
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, London

In its long history, the term ‘burlesque’ has covered a wide range of forms. It has come to mean a sleazy type of entertainment, once very popular in the US from the 1860s to the 1940s but it goes back as far as the sixteenth-century and the works of Francesco Berni. Burlesque is derived from the Italian word ‘burla’ – meaning joke or ridicule – and can be applied to literary parodies by Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler and Miguel de Cervantes. W. S. Gilbert wrote theatrical burlesques, Richard Strauss composed a musical one (Burleske for piano and orchestra), and the third movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is entitle ‘Rondo-Burleske’. However, the currency of burlesque was gradually devalued by the American style of amusement that acquired the name, at the time considered even lower than vaudeville, which was the equivalent of Britain’s music-hall or variety shows.

The US shows comprised mild striptease acts interspersed with comic patter from the theatre’s resident funny men. By today’s standards they were fairly tame with little nudity, the emphasis more on the tease than the strip. In London from 1931 to 1964 the Windmill Theatre was famous for its ‘Revudeville’ shows of tableaux vivants in which the nude female performers were not allowed to move. Several now-famous comedians entertained the audience between these tableaux and many graduated to international success: Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Michael Bentine, Barry Cryer, Tommy Cooper and Bruce Forsyth all started at the Windmill. But who now remembers the strippers? The Windmill was the only London theatre remaining open during World War Two, hence the motto, “We never closed”, often twisted to “We never clothed”!

Since virtually disappearing in the States, burlesque has returned to Britain with a vengeance, now almost respectable and often part of a nightclub’s cabaret programme, rather than being the under-the-counter show it had hitherto been for the ‘dirty mac’ brigade. In Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles’s musical-play Burlesque, we are in the USA circa 1952 when such entertainment was on its last legs. Meggido’s intention is to pay “homage to the 1950s American book-musical with a dirty, contemporary edge.” He sets his show in a rundown theatre against the backdrop of Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee at the time of the Korean War. Although the events of ‘9/11’ have recently cast a shadow over the States, Meggido reckons such terror came between 1947 and 1954, the era of McCarthyism. His show is therefore a blend of showbiz and politics. Following several years of developments and re-workings, it now arrives at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Burlesque takes place in the Palace Theatre, not the legendary house in New York but a provincial pit somewhere in Middle America. Theatre-owner Freddie Le Roy is going out of business with his mix of scantily-clad chorus girls and lowbrow comedians who, along with their material, have seen better days. Patrons are finding other forms of entertainment: television is taking hold. Freddie confides in his assistant and wardrobe-mistress Lula that things are looking so bleak he may have to close the theatre. For the time being the show goes on, with three dancing girls and comic double-act doing their best, which is barely that good. Rags Ryan and Johnny Reno are an Abbott & Costello type of duo dishing out old jokes and ancient routines just good or bad enough to keep the customers happy between strip numbers. It turns out that Johnny is being investigated by HUAC. Its representative, Bill Henry, arrives to persuade him to name names. Although not guilty of anything much, apart from having had a rabidly ‘red’ father, Johnny refuses to testify. Meanwhile Rags is also under suspicion as a washed-up, alcoholic, Irish Catholic, homosexual comic who once flirted with Communism. When Johnny learns that his girlfriend Honey, one of Freddie’s dancers, is pregnant, he sees no future for them unless he comes clean. This means getting Rags in trouble, which leads to further tragedy. A sub-plot involves the relationship between black dancer Saul Sunday and another of Freddie’s girls, Georgia, who, although she looks slightly black, can pass herself off as Italian.

The show recreates the seamy side of burlesque very well and the corny comedy routines are spot on. Even with just three dancers we get the idea of what it was like to bump and grind through the most dispiriting sector of show-business. The dialogue is sharp and funny and hits the spot with its uncomfortably edgy but always mordant humour. Linal Haft works wonders as Freddie, always on the lookout for a way to make a buck and, as an eternal romantic, maybe get his paws on an attractive girl too. As Lula, Buster Skeggs creates a marvellously blasé character who may once have had a relationship with Freddie and is still carrying a torch, for him. Jon-Paul Hevey as Johnny and Chris Holland as Rags make a good double-act even with the most obvious of material which, along with their characters, rings all too true. As Honey Alicia Davies has a powerful voice and puts over some of the most plangent numbers such as ‘New world’ and ‘Love never plays fair’ with strong emotional depth.

The songs comprise a wide range of styles from the nostalgic opening tribute to ‘The Palace’, through the point numbers such as ‘Leave ‘em laughing’, ‘Time to give up, girls’, ‘Luck of the Irish’, ‘Rags’ rag’ and ‘Love’s the same all over the world’, to the more serious content of ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Fear’. Act Two opens with a delightful pastiche of the sort of number any burlesque show would have been proud of. Chorine Amy (Victoria Serra) comes on as Little Red Riding Hood and proceeds to vamp and camp her way through the traditional story which looks increasingly like a dirty version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Duncan Walsh-Atkins’s band enters into the spirit in all of the numbers, reproducing a fine sound that’s an authentic throwback to a 1950s-style combo.

All in all Burlesque is a neatly staged show that could perhaps do with a little tightening up. It works well at Jermyn Street but really deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. It’s certainly worth a detour.

  • Burlesque is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1 until Saturday 18 December 2011
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m. with matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3.30
  • Tickets on 020 7287 2875
  • Jermyn Street Theatre

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