After the 2004 Olivier Award-winning success of C’est Barbican - that updated the art of burlesque to a contemporary, highly intimate idiom in which the acts were ordered off a menu and performed directly at your table - there’s now an inevitable attempt to revive the form in the West End, too.
But the desperately repetitive and frankly banal spectacle that is Immodesty Blaize and Walter's Burlesque! has neither the spectacular wit nor subversive allure of its predecessor. Most fatally, there’s a lot of attitude and posing, but no sense of danger or spontaneity.
As I watched it feebly unfold, it made me pine first of all for Gypsy (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1959 musical, set in the world of vaudeville and burlesque, that has had two major Broadway revivals in the past 20 years, but none in London). Then, as it went on (and on), it quickly made me wish I were anywhere else at all. In the end, Burlesque! earned a distinction, of sorts: this might well be amongst the worst shows I have ever seen in the West End.
There’s only so much ‘bump and grind’ one man can take; and there are hardly an infinite variety to the ways the same person can get their kit off in public but still not actually show anything. As the eponymous duo of the title strip again (and again) to no interesting effect, a numbing kind of boredom quickly sets in.
Immodesty Blaize may have immodestly blazing thighs to offer, and does a neat trick in being able to spin tassels off her breasts in opposing directions, but so what? Walter’s repeated stripteases, meanwhile, are even less edifying, particularly when he impersonates a Britney Spears who has clearly neglected to wax.
There is even less “talent” on offer from Spike Loons (Danny Schlesinger) with his sad balloon tricks and the shimmying chorine Magic Wanda (Rebecca Grant) with her feeble attempts at magic. But the most bizarre thing of all is to note in the programme that this whole sorry mess was ‘directed’ by Jane Gibson, who for ten years was head of movement at the National Theatre and continues to be an associate director of Cheek by Jowl.
It could also be noted that an easily pleased, clearly partisan first night audience frequently roared its approval. Nevertheless, I think Burlesque! will soon go down as one of those unique West End aberrations: a show that tries to break new ground but instead peddles old hat and tat.
- Mark Shenton