I’ve often pondered why Paris has The Lido, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère and all London can muster up for spectacular cabaret is really West End shows like 42nd Street. If you want feathers, tits and glitz in Paris all you need is a back seat at the bar in the Lido and you’ll be entertained royally by the creme of the cabaret world. London just lacks.
Well, it did until the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank erected a mirrored, gilded Spiegeltent every summer and invited an international list of artists to entertain a slightly woozy audience who have been drinking in the open air bars that surround it.
The South Bank cabaret is generous on drag queens, burlesque and boylesque but there is one company of performers that entice me into the Spiegeltent at least three times during the season and these boys are called Briefs. This Australian collective of buff, bearded acrobats, circus queens and comediennes never, ever fail to lift my skirt.
The evening begins with tipsy quaffing in the open-air bar that soon processes to serious queueing to secure one of the best seats in the house as close to the raised stage as possible. For 2017, the Briefs boys work the Spiegeltent wearing spray-on tweed shorts suits selling tickets for the raffle. This is one ballot that every gay male in the audience wants to win.
The ambience is not dissimilar to Battersea Dogs Home when all the males are in heat. Not that the audience is exclusively male. I counted at least ten hen parties on various levels of inebriation though the boys did poke their heads up like meerkats every time a Brief boy approached with a dazzling smile and a raffle bucket illuminated by fairy lights.
Briefs always have a sparkly opening and 2017 was no exception: mistress of ceremonies Fez Fa’nana leading her boys in a striptease behind peacock feather fans. Now, admit it, we all have our favourite. Louis Biggs has a naughty schoolboy smile that engages every member of the audience but I’ve always been a sucker for Mark ‘Captain Kidd’ Winmill. That man can fill a G-string like a cruise missile and two satellites.
Cabaret of any flavour has to have class, talent and sex. Mission is accomplished with Briefs who defy classification as boylesque, acrobatics or variety. The set pieces are so beautifully choreographed and timed to perfection to raise the audience’s collective blood pressure on the beat.
I do enjoy Fez’s schtick about blowing minds and perceptions and anything else you have to offer. I was less amused when I popped to the gents to discover that they were ‘gender neutral’. Now, I admire equality but do you think the girls in the boy’s loos really wanted to queue up next to urinals that an average of twenty men use every five minutes? I rest my case.
What I love about a Briefs show is how humour links skill that would defy Rudolph Nureyev. I enjoyed Harry Clayton-Wright and Thomas Grundy Greenfield’s interpretive dance based (very) loosely on Dirty Dancing. Seeing a bearded hulk throwing a man in a dress, NHS spectacles and dodgy wig around a stage is original and amusing.
But then Mark Winmill performs areal acrobatics on a trapeze wearing a black mamba thong, make-up glistening and muscles rippling, the magic infuses the room. These men are so talented and I think they use their bodies in a more life-affirming way than the steroid monkeys at the Olympics.
A new addition to Briefs this year was Thomas Worrell who performed a spinning areal acrobatic number in a metal birdcage. H had to pass me the sal volatile when his foot touched his forehead in the most beautiful move since Nijinsky danced. Bear in mind we were a bottle of rosé down at this point but that was positively flagging compared to the rest of the audience.
I think I recall Louis Biggs doing something impossible with a Rubix Cube and a Yo-Yo last year while dressed as a geeky schoolboy. This season he juggled balls with speed that would have defied the Hadron Collider. I’d love to see Louis have a crack at Bette Midler’s balls-on-strings. He is one of those boys for whom the words ‘awwww cute’ were invented.
By the time the raffle was drawn I think the entire tent was 100% proof. The lucky winner – a sexy gay boy – was treated to an ass-slapping lap dance that made one suspect the ballot was rigged. Well, why not?
Though I was bitterly disappointed that Captain Kidd didn’t lower himself from the ceiling into a giant champagne cup to splash and twirl like 2016, he did perform an act with day-glo hula hoops that had most of the audience adjusting their trousers. I am such a fan of dangerous, subversive, sexy cabaret so contented myself with applauding like a performing seal.
Briefs make much of being counterculture and challenging gender boundaries but I do have the feeling that they are preaching to the converted. They are a sell out show and the same cannot be said for most West End shows. I think rather than labouring the point they might be happy to celebrate their own sexiness rather than sexuality.
Watching Briefs made me question my profession. Would it not be more fun spinning from a hoop in a jock wearing make-up and facial hair than being an author? Hell yes. So, boys, more power to your elbow. Keep spinning, camping and flirting to show us all that life is about having a good time not trying to please an audience that simply don’t want to smile.