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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Success in Risque Burlesque Business

Helen SpallWoodbridge actress Helen Spall is due to make an eye-poppingly spectacular home-coming this weekend when she a touch of retro-sophistication to the Riverside Theatre. But, as she told Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, Caburlesque is a long way from her am-dram days of the past.

Feathers and fireworks, basques, stockings and bowler hats - Caburlesque summons up the sights and sounds of decadent past which is neither gone nor forgotten.

The sexy, naughty but nice era of The Windmill and Cabaret is back. London is being overwhelmed by high class burlesque and Woodbridge actress Helen Spall is at the cutting edge of this dazzling form of 21st century retro entertainment. It's an art form which is both sophisticated and not afraid to tantalise, tease and show a little flesh.

Retro-cabaret star Dita Von Teese has helped bring the art-form into the spotlight while the film Mrs Henderson Presents recreated the variety world which made burlesque into mainstream entertainment.

Helen said that both factors have helped bring burlesque back into the spotlight but she is pleased that her own efforts to revive this trend pre-dated those current trend-setters.

Helen Spall, daughter of Woodbridge am-dram impressario Don Spall, started her celebration of variety four years ago during her final year at Middlesex University. This coincided with a boom in similar entertainment in the capital, so when she and her friends left university they decided to turn her part-time interest into a full-time profession.

She said that the company Caburlesque was born in her final year of university to provide her love of dance with an outlet. “In my third year of university I decided to put together a show so I could do some choreography, I love doing shows, and I quickly ended up doing one a month - that went on throughout my third year. Along the way three other guys joined in - Tom Course, my partner, Graham Cutting and Wayne Burke and we became the four who founded the company.

“After uni ended we decided to keep going and we found a venue under London Bridge called Jacks. It was a horrible little place under one of the arches and we had to build our own theatre in the place, put in lights and everything, but it was a real success. It was really well attended and we found that a lot of guys from our course wanted to join in and keep the thing going.

“We decided to do two more shows there and it really took off.”

She said that they were now so in demand they are supplying entertainment to events all over London. “We are able to provide as little or much entertainment as they want. If they want some can can girls we are happy to just send those. Other times we will send along a short hour long package or maybe just a ten minute turn or, as we are doing for Woodbridge, an entire two hour, West End style show.”

She said that although she hates the phrase “naughty but nice” it is an apt description of the sort of show they perform. “Some people say: “Well, are you strippers then?” and I say absolutely not. You will never see a completely naked girl on the stage at any point. That's not what burlesque is about. It's about the point before that, the tease and the artistry. It's not about the sordid. It's about what is hidden and yet not hidden.”

She said that although the company has grown quite large since those days 60% of their core performers are those original students from Middlesex university performing arts course. “We do audition for new members for the company, because it's important to have an influx of new blood every now and then but having said that - when we first founded the company after university, a lot of our university crowd came with us and many of them are still onboard and they have grown with us. But we do always audition for new talent every time we have a new show and refresh the talent pool.”

She said that it is gratifying to be in a position where they deliver a show that immediately connects with an audience.

“The show Caburlesque is the exact name for it. It's not cabaret - it's not burlesque - it is its own combined new form of entertainment. We draw from entertainment from the part - the night club entertainments of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, even the 50s but we always put our twist on things, make it a bit more overtly sexy, put a bit of comedy in there - a real merger of different styles but with a contemporary 21st century feel to it.

“There has been a tremendous resurgence in interest in this type of entertainment - it's going back to real variety, of the type that was very popular at The Windmill. In fact the success of the film Mrs Henderson Presents has boosted interest and our last show was based very much on the type of experience that people would have seen at The Windmill. We incorporated a routine where the girls are frozen in a tableaux, then we have sexy dancers, there's a bit of comedy, Andrews Sisters-style singers and loads more. Each company member performs under a pseudonym. Mine is Miss Velvet Fortune, some others we have are Miss Sweety Whisper, Mr Wallace Sneek-a-peek, Mr Henry Copafeele and Miss Fee Fee La Minx.”

She said that traditional variety was at the heart of their act. “It gives you as artists and performers the opportunity to do so many different things. It gives you such freedom to perform. And it still works - particularly if you put all the various bits together in a clever way - which we do. We have proved that there is still a demand for this type of entertainment.”

For 25 year old Helen performing is in the blood. She said that she is so grateful that at a time when so many young actors are unemployed or spend more time waiting on tables in Covent Garden cafes than they do on stage, that she is employed full-time in the theatre.

When she is not running Caburlesque she is employed as a part-time technical manager in the West End but her real ambition is to be a choreographer. “I was always destined for the stage. If theatres didn't exist I don't know what I would do. I always knew what my career would be. Looking back on it now, I don't think I even consciously made a choice. I always knew what I would be doing. This is why I am never going to be rich.”

She said that passion was at the heart of everything she did. “It's about doing something you really enjoy. That's why I have put my own money into it. There's nothing like it in the world. You get such a thrill putting a show together.”

She said that her own performing roots stretch all the way back to Woodbridge and The Company of Four. She first ventured on stage at the age of two and has been happy to stay there ever since.

“I followed Dad around learning the tricks of the trade - both on stage and off - and as a result of the skills I learnt there, the first job I got in London was stage manager at the comedy store in Piccadilly Circus. I was recommended by my tutors because I had all this technical experience and expertise drawn from my time in Woodbridge. I loved working at the comedy store, met some great people and have had some great leads when it came to our own shows.

“But choreography is my absolute love. If I had to do only one thing for the rest of my life I would be very happy being a choreographer. Back in Woodbridge I owed my big break as a choreographer to David Caddick, who offered me the chance to choreograph Guys And Dolls but he gave me an awful decision. He said I could either choreograph the show or audition for Sarah Brown - what a choice. It was tough but in the end I chose to choreograph the show. Which is an interesting decision considering how young I was at the time. But, looking back on it now, I made the right decision.”

She said that such experience and her time at university gave her the knowledge and the confidence to set up her own company after she graduated.

Although she acknowledges that she has come a long way in four years, she says that she is impatient for Caburlesque to really hit the big time. “It feels that everything has happened incredibly slowly because I am such an ambitious person. It's in my nature to want things to happen quickly and I feel that perhaps I should be doing more. I have always had that drive. At 14, I was working as a part-time projectionist at the Riverside when all my friends were doing paper rounds. That was normal for me.

“I have always been doing stuff that's been ahead of what I should have been doing. So I think that by the same extension my company should now be world famous and it's not, so at times I find it rather frustrating. But when you do take a step back and view it objectively, I see that I am only 25. I do work full-time in the theatre, I do have my own company, it is doing well and yes I am pleased with our success … it's just we want it to happen on a bigger scale and just a bit faster.”

Her company is based in London and uses the refurbished Clapham Grand as a base for their showcase performances. “The Clapham Grand is a big theatre, a real Victorian Palace of variety which had all the old musical hall acts. It's now a nightclub, which remains pretty much the same inside except they have lost all the seats and there are now four bars. It's perfect for us because the whole point of cabaret is that you sit at tables with friends, have a drink and enjoy the show.”

She said that the nature of their shows means that they can take bits and pieces of the full show and re-package them as smaller themed entertainments at larger events.

“The last big show we did, Party in the Past, had a cast of 17 - prior to that we have another big show which can be resurrected when anybody wants it. We tend to do a big show and then work off that for the next several months. Because each number is a self-contained piece in itself, if someone phones up and wants an hour's worth of entertainment centred around a theme, we can mix and match items and put a show together for them.

“It's a case of tailoring the material we have to the way that people want it. We do a big show twice or possibly three times a year and we hire the Clapham Grand for those occasions. Other times we are designing shows and sending out shows for other events at other venues - places like The CafĂ© de Paris, the Pigalle Club, London Hippodrome - all high profile venues. Last year we had so many requests to perform at various events that it took up 80% of our time.”

She said that she is looking forward to bringing her show back to Woodbridge. She said that the title Party In The Past would deliver exactly what the title suggests.

“The premise of the show is that we take audiences through more than a century of celebratory hi-jinks. It's a real spectacle. We open with a masquerade ball from the mid-19th century, complete with pyrotechnics. Then have some wonderful ten-part harmony singing along with some vague sexiness. From there we are propelled into a 1920s speakeasy and the world of the secret underground party. Then we glide into the sophisticated '30s and that where we do our famous handclapping routine with ten girls wearing basques which always gets a rise from our audience.

“In the second half we are into the dance parties with a modern tango section, then comes the second world war section which I am particularly excited about we have a bit of The Great Escape in there and then into the 1950s, which is probably the most extrovertly sexy piece of the evening, and we end with our famous can can.”

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