The Black Cat Cabaret: Nocturne
Spiegeltent, London Wonderground
One of the most exciting features of the current fairground-cluster that is London Wonderground on the South Bank is the focus on late night cabaret. In the summer months of the festival many of the leading figures in the London cabaret scene are passing through, sometimes more than once and in different and intriguing combinations. After their award-winning success at Wonderground last year, there were great expectations of the Black Cat Cabaret’s new ninety-minute show, Nocturne, which runs on selected Fridays until early September.
Nocturne attempts to explore the subconscious of a weary commuter (Ben Cutler) who falls asleep while strap-hanging on the tube near Waterloo. It seeks out a ‘hinterland between waking and sleeping’ where Cutler is taken on a dream journey in which he has a series of encounters with the rest of the performers in the show with whom he some kind of personal or psychic connection. The show then opens up in a sequence of performances featuring acrobats, dancers, singers, burlesque performers, and circus acts. Musical direction is provided with customary panache and apt arrangements by Michael Roulston; and the show is directed by Simon Evans, well known as an illusionist and magic consultant for the National Theatre. There are several performances here of rare distinction, but reluctantly I have to conclude that for all the pedigree of the performers this was an evening that did not entirely succeed in becoming more than the sum of its glittering parts.
It is entirely laudable for the coordinators of a cabaret evening to seek an overarching theme and narrative to knit together the constituent elements and prevent it becoming a shopping list of unconnected items. However, once the theme is chosen it does need to be carried through with more rigour and clarity than I could discern here. The programme notes refer to inspiration in ‘Freudian dream archetypes, Mozart’s Magic Flute and an end-of-the century mood of giddy abandonment’, but the threads need to be much more tightly drawn here for any of that to cohere or even appear clearly. Part of the problem was that Cutler, the weary Everyman at the centre of this journey, has too little to do and too little engagement with what does on around him. He was not allowed to speak or to sing, and though he looked good and was an effective stage mover, his presence was not strongly enough evoked to act as an emotional or intellectual focus for the show. We simply did not have enough reasons to care about him.
This threw the weight of interpretation back on to the remarkable soprano Lili La Scala, who was his main guide through the nocturnal world. In costume and regal diva bearing, she clearly was modeling herself on the Queen of the Night, and there was no doubting her presence or the quality of her coloratura. Her various numbers certainly had impact, but for all their blaze and force they were not always grounded in clear shifts in the purported narrative of the evening. (Another but unintended point in common with the Queen of the Night). Moreover, her linking material, especially in the first half, lacked the pace and substance to get the evening moving, for all of its moments of wry and even tart humour. The problem here was not so much with the performer but with the concept. A strong narrative needs an iron-willed compere in the Joel Grey manner to move things along and the structure and format of the evening simply did not permit that to develop.
That said there were many acts of real flair and expertise on offer which made it a worthwhile evening overall. The hand-to-hand acrobats Nathan and Isis made acrobatics seem like choreographed ballet at times so complicated and fluent and sequenced were their lifts and clinches. The dance trio Cabaret Rouge were both risqué and innovative, and capable of traditional routines too that nodded in the direction of the Follies. But for me there were three moments in the evening that really stood out. New York’s Amy G provided a larger-than-life intervention as the mother of our nocturnal commuter: her disaster-defying skating skills, and a dazzlingly inventive routine with a wine glass were impressive enough; but her banter and singing of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ really engaged and involved the audience in a way that showed clearly what was needed elsewhere. My top highlights though were provided by Bret Pfister and Katrina Lilwall, the first for his extraordinary and highly poetic adventures on a suspended hoop, and Katrina for two separate performances – as a fire-eater and even more impressively for her aerial contortions with two sets of chains. Quite rightly this was the act that closed out the first half of the evening, and found the greatest admiration from the audience. These artists found a poetry and pathos in motion that went way beyond triumphs of mere technique.
Perhaps there were problems on the night I saw the show (it certainly started unusually late), but for all the skill on display among the individual performers I found the first half at least under-powered, and whole in need of a more sovereign organizing concept. Looking at some of the fabulous costumes on display made me think of the legacy of Alexander McQueen, now so powerfully and poignantly commemorated in the current V&A exhibition. I could not help thinking that a narrative organized around a tribute to his dark imagination would have worked better both in structuring the catwalk set of the show and harnessing the moody introspection and tragedy, as well as finely crafted humour, of which all these fine artists are capable. Black Cat are famous for their exploration of the gothic, melancholic and manic sides of night-time music making and musing: a fusion between their regular aesthetic and the formalized, but subversive vision of fashion in McQueen might have told us much more about McQueen himself than the play running at St James Studio, and revealed important affinities and synergies between the worlds of catwalk fashion and circus, burlesque and cabaret.