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Underbelly, The Southbank Festival

I’ve just read a most enjoyable book entitled My Old Man by, of all people, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major. It’s notionally about his parents, though they barely figure. What it actually is, is a thoroughly researched history of British popular entertainment, from about 1700 through to about 1920, with a focus on Music Hall from its inception, growth, and eventual demise at the hand of cinema and radio.

Unlike ‘legitimate’ theatre, music hall had its genesis in spaces over pubs and back rooms where food was served. The audience would often be a lot more raucous as the entertainment was there in the first instance (at least to begin with) to sell more food and drink, with a mixed and eclectic selection of entertainment to suit all tastes.

Well, Bernie Dieter’s Little Death Club reminded me of the worlds conjured up in Major’s book. This is 21st century music hall done by punks and the gender fluid. Although the acts might be cutting edge, the format would have been recognisable to anyone in the 1860s. A Chairman (in this case hostess and co-creator, Bernie Dieter) introduces a mixed bag of acts, some physical, some specialist, but all of them excellent, to do their spot.

Dieter herself gets the ball rolling and during her song breaks the ice with plenty of audience participation. She also sets the tone, which the Victorians would probably have called bawdy, but we might think of as not so much risqué, as ‘in-your-face’. From the outset this is a space for adults, and there’s not much that doesn’t get said, or indeed exposed, in the name of art.

Beau Sargent’s aerial ballet is both beautiful, and at times disconcerting. The programme tells us that he trained as a ballet dancer, however I can’t believe they taught him how to dislocate his shoulder on demand – I swear you could hear a pop from his joints. His act, for all its – and his – beauty and accomplishment is in a direct line going right back to Jules Leotard, the French aerialist and acrobat who first performed in London in 1861 at the Alhambra Music Hall.

Fancy Chance is what used to be termed ‘a speciality act’. She hangs by her hair as she swings hither and yon like a human pendulum. Sometimes wafting ethereal wings of white silk. Sometimes, well, completely nude.

Myra Dubois, ‘The Songbird of South Yorkshire’, was the highlight for me. A classy drag queen with a tone somewhere between Victoria Wood and Hyacinth Bucket.  Female impersonators of one sort or another were a staple of the halls, though I doubt even Dan Leno could have pulled off singing the duet from Chess, ‘I know Him So Well’, quite as outrageously…

Le Mime Tipi, a disgruntled French mime artiste who is the creation of Australian comedian Josh Glanc, looked the part but I suspect he still has places to go with his act. It didn’t so much end, as fizzle out. Something which couldn’t be said of Kitty Bank Bang, a fire eater.

There’s also a live band on stage. As well as being VERY loud, they seem to have the curious ability to make every song they play sound as if it’s come from The Rocky Horror Show…

I guess if I was going to sum the Little Death Club, it’s arty, but in a commercial way. It is circus skills, burlesque, and stand-up comedy all rolled into one and glued together by the marvellous Bernie Dieter. Like music hall, it’s something to watch while you drink your pint.

  • Circus, Cabaret etc
  • Creators: Bernie Dieter and Tom Velvick
  • Cast Includes: Bernie Dieter, Kitty Bank Bang, Beau Sargent, Fancy Chance, Myra Dubois and Josh Glanc
  • Underbelly, The Southbank Festival
  • Until 29th September 2019
  • Time: 1 hour, no interval

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