Funny Girl

Feature in Issue 20-3 | Autumn 2008

Helen Kane meets Miss Behave on the eve of her variety nighty season at the Roundhouse.

For three weeks in August, Camden’s Roundhouse will be host to a variety night billed as having a ‘New Era, New Show, Old Time Variety Twist’. This is Miss Behave’s Variety Nighty – a two-hour medley of eclectic talent hand picked by Miss Behave herself from around the globe.

Publicity for the night displays a delectably clad Miss Behave free-falling from the dizzy heights of the Roundhouse rafters in her trademark second skin of red tailored latex, topped off with a two-tier rubber pillbox hat. It’s sophisticated but kitsch, elegant and camp. The night, it has to be said, looks positively delicious.

Miss Behave, or Amy Saunders as she is known off-stage, is a celebrated MC, variety performer, and sword-swallower extraordinaire – and holder of the world record for the most swords swallowed by a female. The Guinness record-breaking moment she nonchalantly put away seven of them on live TV in front of a largely bilious audience (there for all to see on YouTube) makes for amusing viewing.

The show was recorded four years ago, but it gives a hint as to how TV producers have since capitalised on audiences’ appetite for the thrill factor of live performance. This has since culminated in ITV’s curate’s egg par excellence, Britain’s Got Talent – a travesty or a celebration of human (and animal) potential, depending on your definition of the word ‘talent’.

But whilst shows such as BGT are a burgeoning novelty in mainstream terms, it could be argued that through their success the great British public are re-learning the vocabulary of variety – somewhat ironic given how roundly the advent of TV finished off the careers of so many established performers earning a living touring in variety halls up until the 1950s.

Yet the prevalence of TV, cinema and radio has in some sense made live performance more rarefied. More knowing audiences looking for a social occasion with an unpredictable edge have found their appetites whetted by cabaret and ‘new variety’ stalwarts such as Brighton’s Voodoo Vaudeville founded by Chris Cresswell and Ruth Glazier back in 1999, Mike Hancock’s Cabaret Heaven wowing the crowds up in West Yorkshire since 1998, and Maynard Flip Flap’s Cabaret Boom down the road in Sheffield which has been selling out for the past four years. Other nights flying the flag for variety include A Cracking Night Out in Hackney, Finger in the Pie at Madame Jo Jo’s and Paul Martin’s Sideshow at London’s Arts Theatre.

Past cabarets of note include the Hoxton Bark, Chris Green’s Screamers and of course the huge success of La Clique in the Famous Spiegeltent, which took Edinburgh by storm in 2004, and went on to tour festivals the world over.

The beauty of these cabarets – typically containing a melange of character comedy, circus, dance, clowning and physical theatre – is that a variety of genres can come together to form a complementary macrocosm of the beautiful and bizarre. But it is also interesting to note to what extent within this platform the female comic has prevailed.

Female variety comics follow an honourable tradition of big name character comediennes such as Joyce Grenfell, Dora Bryan, Beatrice Lillie, and Gertrude Lawrence, who performed mainly in revue alongside names like Noel Coward and Danny La Rue; and earlier characters from music hall such as male impersonators Hetty King and Vesta Tilley, or character singers like ‘Happy’ Fanny Fields and Marie Lloyd.

Today, free from the formulaic constrictions that characterise so much of the stand-up circuit, the variety bill is home to a rich seam of female comedy, often created out of various performance genres from street art to fetish – a provenance that would explain an imaginative streak in many acts that is rarely seen in the mostly two-dimensional world of stand-up comedy. The short spot format of a variety bill also enables performers to use a gem of an idea that can be honed and polished without the hassle of having to create an entire show to go with it – in my experience, events such as the International Workshop Festival are invaluable for this kind of brainstorming, especially as so many of the workshops complement a female genre of expression.

When I first began to explore clowning (after being blown away by Nola Rae and Sally Owen in And the Ship Sailed On at Brighton’s Komedia almost ten years ago) the majority of the people at the clown courses I subsequently blitzed over the next few years, were, I noticed, women.

Likewise, when I went on to work in street theatre both as a solo performer and later with dotComedy, it was impressive to note what a substantial amount of laughs were and still are being generated by women.

A by no means exhaustive list of my own personal favourites working a cross-section of genres would include performers such as Ruth Glazier (one half of Lenny & Morris, founder of Voodoo Vaudeville); Paschale Straiton (currently touring The Séance to street arts festivals up and down the country); Emma Lloyd (Stickleback Plasticus, Ramshaklicious and director of numerous physical comedy and street shows); Cathy Peace (director of Swank); Ursula Martinez (whose Hanky Panky striptease brought the house down in La Clique and continues to do so worldwide); Lorraine Bowen (camp queen of the Casio organ and eccentric par excellence); Flick Ferdinando (co-artistic director of Company FZ and member of The Strangelings, amongst numerous other credits); Petra Massey (of Spymonkey who are also performing in Variety Nighty); and of course, Miss Behave herself.

But as well as drawing individual performers into its ranks, the whole experience of variety seems to have particular appeal for a female audience. Cabaret Boom’s Rick Allan (aka Maynard Flipflap) says that up to 90% of his tickets are booked by women. This, he suggests, is down to the experiential aspect of variety – a package with a personal touch – from being greeted by costumed characters at the door and being entertained by walkabout characters during the interval, to the interactive nature of the cabaret itself.

Cabaret gives people, and women in particular, the opportunity to dress up, show off and give rein to abandon. And the audience is, after all, very much part of the show. Many nights have a loyal crowd that adds to the intimacy, and the connection between audiences who get to know a regular cast over a period of time is particularly gratifying when catchphrases or signature skits become part of an established understanding between performer and audience (cue Chris Cresswell’s famous Snake Dance where the audience do a drum roll, make a collective of snake hands and wave them en masse to Al Wilson’s hit ‘The Snake’ or his notorious refrain of ‘It’s a fucking shambles!’).

In Variety Nighty, Amy has a fully functional crew where all the cast, including riggers and stage-manager, become part of the show – none of the performers or crew are ever anonymous. Stage manager Dougie Douglea hallowed veteran of street theatre himself and owner of one of the deftest tongues I’ve certainly ever heard onstage – will be trading quips whilst carrying out his more ‘official’ operations, likewise ‘Rigger Boy’, the rigger who is also one of the main acts. There are no offstage duties – everything will be played out onstage, around the charismatic hub of the MC. This emphasis on the element of play between the acts is one thing Amy is most looking forward to: ‘The beauty of it is there’s a month to grow organically as a show – whatever grows grows, whatever doesn’t doesn’t – but the show has the kind of performers that thrive with that kind of opportunity.’

This exciting balance of precision in the form of more fixed routines in combination with the improvised elements of the show – the Spymonkey clowns in particular can be expected to run amok in the way that only they can – guarantees a show with a very special appeal. ‘By the first half,’ says Amy, ‘it’ll be like an old friend, likewise the gags will have become old friends.’ In describing the mix she says, ‘It’s like a box of Roses – plain old fashioned entertainment, and that’s the beauty of good quality (acts), there’s something there for everyone.’ Star turns range from fireworks aficionado Lucifire and uber-kitsch crooner Frank Sanazi to the breathtaking aerial of Marjo, Bret Pfister and Lyndall Merry where the incredible height of the Roundhouse adds yet another dimension to the experience.

With the addition of a guest spot every night, the only thing that remains predictable about this show is the sheer calibre of the line-up. And I, for one, can’t wait to take my seat and join them.

Referenced Artists
Referenced Venues

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Issue 20-3
p. 20 - 21