It’s great to be naughty but nice. A sweet smile coupled with a glaring insult makes you cheeky, rather than rude. A flash of suspender is wickedly charming as opposed to a display of wanton promiscuity. But the nicest type of naughty, and the type that has London in a Xenia Onatopp-like grip, is burlesque. Marrying the coyness of a 1940s housewife with the sensual exhibitionism of Marilyn on a particularly pornographic day, the world of burlesque delicately toes the line of acceptable sexual proclivity, titillating audiences with tassels, sparkles and red lippy by the tonne.
Milking the cabaret cow for all it’s worth, Alex Proud has not only set pulses racing in the achingly glamorous Proud Cabaret, but also brought the stars of London’s burlesque circuit to Proud Kitchen for his new venture Burlesque After Dark, which cranks up debauchery levels to create a more risqué programme, no doubt taking its cue from establishments like The Box, where sexual boundaries and British sensibilities are being pushed to the absolute limit. Having witnessed transvestites doing unmentionable things to bottles of Jack Daniels at The Box (never again will I swig from the bottle without grimacing), I wanted to know just what was on offer at Proud, hoping that my appetite for subversive artistry and coquettish dance would be thoroughly, enjoyably whetted. Armed with stockings and an open mind, I ventured out to sample first Proud Cabaret, and second, once gently broken in, the more lurid programme of Burlesque After Dark.
The former is nestled behind Fenchurch Street Station, shrouded in showgirl light bulbs, with the interiors oozing 1940s hedonism. Decked out with velvet booths, vintage trinkets and lit by the romantic glow of hundreds of candles, Proud Cabaret has a cavernous, other-worldly feel to it, utterly conducive to the evening’s activities.
The same menu is being served in both locations, although I found that Proud Cabaret just had the culinary edge. The food is hardly the main reason for visiting either venue, but I shall briskly walk you through nonetheless. Food is currently set to ‘festive’, with turkey, trimmings and Christmas puds on offer, should that tickle your fancy, but mercifully for those of us not brimming with Christmas spirit this early in December, Proud is still serving up a few other delectable options. In fact, my main course of hake, drizzled with a basil dressing, sitting atop delicately sautéed scallops and mussels, was easily the star of the show. Other courses were a little wanting, with sandpaper-dry turkey and a mound of sorry-looking vegetables letting down an otherwise promising menu. The chocolate fondant, however, is a must: gooey, naughty and almost as sexy as the performers, the culinary antithesis of the pumpkin soup which caused my companion to complain that soup slurping felt the least appropriate activity while ogling undies.
We were served by some of the brightest, most charming and effortlessly efficient staff I have seen in a long time, who were beautifully decked out in corsets, frilly knickers, stockings and heaps of sass.
The evening entertainment at Proud Cabaret was led by a fabulous drag queen named Velma, who changed outfits (and wigs) with alarming frequency. It was like being at The Eurovision Song Contest, but with the added bonus of talent. Velma was incredibly entertaining; not only can this girl sing her socks off (with one of the most brilliant falsettos I’ve heard in a long time), she kept the audience gripped all night with anecdotes, put-downs and one-liners that never became tacky or tired, as these things often do. The acts at Proud Cabaret are handpicked from the less subversive end of the burlesque scale. We were treated to performances drawing on a plethora of disciplines: ballet, circus gymnastics, comedy and jazz dance, to name a few. If you’re squeamish about the possible undertones of sexual exploitation in burlesque, Proud Cabaret will assuage those fears. Attracting a clientele of men and women in equal measure, this burlesque show presents the female form in all its curvaceous, confident, joyful glory, naughty, but always nice. Miss Betsy Rose is consistently wonderful everywhere she performs, and didn’t fail to seduce the audience at Proud with a military-themed number that dripped with vintage class, while ‘the last surviving member of the Chernobyl State Circus’, Katinka, was soup-spurtingly hilarious, even dragging my dinner buddy up on stage, naming him Vladimir, and cheekily manoeuvring him into all sorts of compromising positions. My schadenfreude levels were through the roof.
If your preferred poison is something a little more kinky, however, then head over to Proud Camden for Burlesque After Dark, you naughty things. Just across the corridor from Proud Camden’s heaving dance floor (so you can trot over in the wee small hours and dance off your dinner), the ‘kitchen’ at Proud resembles the kind of stripped-back New York loft apartment that we’d all love to call home. With fairy lights a-plenty and bench seating for sharing, this is a much less formal affair, attracting a younger, laid back crowd. The entertainment was skilfully strung together by a couple of dapper chaps, who looked (and sounded) like the conceptual love children of Flight of the Conchords and Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. Serenading us with ditties like ‘Chlamydia’, this isn’t a show to take your mother to, but criminally entertaining, and rather oddly seductive. With performances including decapitated heads, oodles of latex, licking, thrusting and a song about pussies that definitely wasn’t an allusion to the young lady’s moggie, this burlesque is not for the faint-hearted, the beginner or anyone with vaguely religious inclinations. But if you’re happy to laugh, ogle and get your fill of cheap thrills, it is a deliciously lascivious night out.
Proud Cabaret, 1 Mark Lane, City of London, London EC3R 7AH. Tel. 020 7283 1940. Website.
Burlesque After Dark, Fridays and Saturdays at Proud Kitchen, The Horse Hospital, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AH, 020 7482 3867. Website.