Is it a bird, is it a bee, is it a twister?, asked Chubby Checker. Similar uncertainty arises as to what to call Hotel Black Cat. It is certainly cabaret. But it is also circus, ballet, and a whole lot more. Never mind, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and each part is very good.
The South Bank on a summer’s night is a wonderful place, and none more so than the London Wonderground, conspicuous for the giant purple mammaries of the Udderbelly tent. Skirt round it, and you come upon an archway with Paradiso emblazoned upon it. This looks better than Purgatorio, you might think to yourself. It is actually the entrance to the Spiegeltent – a tent with mirrors, a very large tent, with a very small circular stage in the middle, and rows of seats all around. Erected there is the Hotel Black Cat, and enacted there is a late show. It is not over-long, but it is crammed with goodies, and you will still be able to catch the train home.
The conceit on which the show hangs is that the action takes place in a fashionable West End hotel of the inter-War period, with chambermaid, bell-hop, waiter and even a Palm Court-style string quartet. Trying to stay in charge is the deliciously camp hotel manager, who quickly establishes a comedic rapport with the indulgent audience. They are then treated to a spectacular succession of ‘turns’, featuring song, dance, acrobatics, juggling, pratfalls and much more, carried off with remarkable agility and great panache.
Two examples will illustrate the treats you are in for if you go to this show. The four musicians take to the stage, wielding three violins and a cello. Playing their instruments all the while, they perform intricate dances while serenading each other and enacting a story of sexual intrigue. How do they do it without skipping a beat? And then there is the hotel’s accident-prone handyman. He climbs half-way up a long step-ladder, but the two halves of the ladder come apart, and he somehow manages not to come tumbling down as the ladder sways from side to side and he looks sure to be pitched headlong into the audience. How does he manage to defy gravity in this way?
The audience was enthralled, and cheered the cast to the rafters (does a tent have rafters?) at the end. They were right to do so.