Burlesque: bawdy irreverence fired at the great canon, or just a euphemism for stripping? I went to The New Bradford Playhouse to find out.
I’d ummed and ahhed about booking Heidi Bang Tidy’s ‘Spring Fling’ : “What is burlesque?”, “Am I a burlesque type of person?” and, most importantly, “Would suggesting an evening of burlesque just be inviting the missus to a strip joint?” – in true burlesque style, I decided to go for it… and I’m ever so glad I did!
I’d already asked the ineffable Ms Bang Tidy about the dress code (anything goes, since you’re asking) and we decided to splash out and wear some of our fanciest clobber – a 3 piece suit & a cocktail dress. Just as I left the bedroom, I had a tentative pang that I’d be somewhat overdressed for a night in Bratfud… I needn’t have worried.
We reached The New Bradford Playhouse, a beautiful yet inconspicuous building in the heart of Bradford’s bountiful Little Germany, about an hour before curtain and wandered into the bar. Bright, light and unselfconsciously cool, the bar buzzed with burlesquers new and old, many dressed to the nines: corsets, costumes, top hats and tails mingled and mused upon what delights Heidi Bang Tidy – now The New Bradford Playhouse’s resident burlesque artist, bringing her own brand of variety show every season – would deliver.
Wandering upstairs, we entered the old auditorium, thick with a rich history which includes the patriarchal intervention of Bradford’s leading literary light, JB Priestley. After a few minutes’ confusion over who was sitting where – only adding to the air that the night was night created by impassioned devotees, not dilettantes, of a an older, richer, less-stiff art form – we were ready. For what, I was still not sure.
To rapturous applause, our host Heidi Bang Tidy entered and immediately owned the stage. Pacing up and down like a furbelowed lioness, she demanded and commanded excitement, interest, expectation and respect. “How many of you are at your first burlesque show?” she lilted. About half of us raised apprehensive hands. “Virgins: EXCELLENT!” she squealed with unbridled joy. But our apprehensions were quickly dismissed as, like a cool older sister who teaches you how to behave at your first rock concert, she took us through what to do. There was, however, little to heed barring make as much noise as you can. “This is not a play,” she assured us. “This is not a cricket match. This is burlesque!” whereupon we whooped and hollered and cheered and shouted – and this was just practise for the main event.
In warming us up, I warmed to her as I learned a little more of burlesque and how she came into it. Her passion for the art form –although I was dubious before, I confidently call it so now – is obvious, clear and unashamed; she is a performer and a proselyte who lives and loves burlesque.
The first act, Lilly Laudanum, would have been just what I’d expected of burlesque had I gone in with expectations. Caricaturing Queen Victoria, this empress, somehow remaining stony faced and utterly not amused at our clapping and cat calls, danced and whirled around the stage, casting off clothes until all that remained was a bustle and a smattering of sexy underwear to hide the regal naughty bits. It was irreverent, hilarious and a wonderful introduction to burlesque.
During the night, we were treated a several burlesque artists, each performing in different guises, showcasing the variety and breadth of the art form. Suzie Sequin’s arty, airy, ethereal ‘Snowstorm’, in particular, showed the delicacy and delight that can be delivered whilst, essentially, a woman removes her clothing. This was contrasted and complemented by, at the other end of the scale, bawdy, brazen, comic performances such as my favourite, Velma Von Bon Bon performing her signature ‘Fandango (on her ride-on flamingo)’. Lady Wildflower’s ‘Fosse’, a scintillating homage to choreographer Bob Fosse, underlined that burlesque is sexy but never seedy.
But this was more than burlesque: this was a variety show. Two highlights, for me, were the wonderful Tricity Vogue and the amazing Natalia Kalashnikov. Tricity Vogue, buoyed by Edinburgh Fringe successes, took up her ukulele and brought the house down with her saucy songs. As a lad, I loved Chubby Brown but now, as a grown up Guardian reader, such guilty, youthful pleasures are left behind; thankfully, Vogue might just be what I’ve been waiting for. I laughed till I cried as she sang and strummed a ditty written by San Francisco combo, The Wet Spots, named: Do you take it in the ass? The world premiere of Natalia Kalashnikov, an alter ego of Velma Von Bon Bon, stunned us with her aerial work. I’d seen performers wrap themselves in ribbons and perform death-defying drops before, but never this close and never live. It was captivating! Never have I laughed and gasped so often in the space of a few sensational minutes.
So, what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that burlesque is an art form with an amazing pedigree which is still, rightly, celebrated today. I’ve learnt that The New Bradford Playhouse is a wonderful theatre which matches the avant garde boundary pushing of Theatre in the Mill and the stature, if not the grandiosity, of The Alhambra. I’ve learnt that we should’ve eaten beforehand as beer and burlesque on an empty tum leads to a cracking hangover and losing your phone. But, most of all, I’ve learnt that there’s a huge difference between stripping and burlesque. Whilst I find both equally incapable of rousing my loins, burlesque can be sexy and alluring – but it’s much, much more than that. The nipple tassels and wispy knickers which spring to mind hide little except the skill, sensuality and bawdy 70s Carry On of the craft. I’d worried, initially, that I was asking my wife to a strip joint; instead, I soon realised, I was taking her for an evening of fun and frivolity… and that’s why we’ll be back.
Heidi Bang Tidy is The New Bradford Playhouse’s resident burlesque artist, and you can see her exceptional shows throughout the year, including Summer Sizzle (5th July 2013), Heidi’s birthday party (27th September), the Hallowe’en show (25th October) and the Christmas Spectacular (various dates in December); see New Bradford Playhouse for details. She is also the brains (and boobs) behind Hebden Bridge’s Burlesque Festival 3-5 May 2013.