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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

White Mischief: A Vaudeville Night with Bite

sefi snake dancer
When the burlesque revival began in the mid-1990s, it just took one woman and an over-sized martini glass to bring nipple tassels to the forefront of mainstream consciousness. The world was soon awash with burlesque classes and tournaments - to the point where I recently found myself having to learn the subtle art of seduction at a Lambrini-infused hen party which involved lots of basques and feather boas. More Bet Gilroy than Bettie Page, though.

Vaudeville was popular in America from the 1880s to the 1930s - while we Brits had music hall. Singers, comedians and bearded ladies rubbed shoulders with fire-eaters, strongmen, escapologists and trained animals (a low-brow Royal Variety Performance, if that's possible). But these nights couldn't compete with cinema, radio and TV, and were effectively killed off by the 1950s.

However, vaudeville has recently had a revival in the US, particularly on New York's Lower East Side in places such as Bowery Poetry Club and Pete's Candy Store. Acts have also started to appear all over the UK, with Voodoo Vaudeville in Brighton, the Vaudeville Cabaret Club at the last Edinburgh Fringe festival and Miss Behave's Variety Nighty at the Roundhouse in Camden.

White Mischief, a yearly London vaudeville night founded by Tobias Slater, is one of the most successful. They have their third show coming up at Scala, King's Cross, on June 7. With a mixture of comedy, extreme circus-style performances and musical acts, they offer something for those who want a bit more bite. White Mischief is a one night indoor festival combining unique live musical acts with some of the most astonishing vaudeville and circus performers around.

Past acts have included a man who electrocuted himself with 50,000 volts and a "flesh harpist" who played on strings attached to hooks embedded in human skin. This year promises more to marvel at with a Guinness world record-holding sword swallower, a snake charmer, an aerial acrobatic team and a Victorian comedy troupe.

So what attracts people to vaudeville? Does the surreal mix of acts offer a night of escapism? Is it a case of pure nostalgia? Or maybe it's more base than that. Have we just realised we're actually not as sophisticated as we thought and would love nothing more than to see a bit of old-fashioned slapstick comedy followed by someone electrocuting themselves?

So is the vaudeville format set to become the new burlesque? If so, let's hope this trend retains its original style - just imagine what a hen night could do with snake charming, or sword-swallowing for that matter ...

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