Traditional burlesque forms the historical basis for many of the comedy and sketch shows you will see at the Edinburgh Fringe. Possibly from the Italian “burla” which means to ridicule or mock, burlesque took classical forms of high-brow culture, such as opera or Shakespearean or Greek theatre, and added incongruous actions (think: the Horrible Histories television series where historical characters act with contemporary mannerisms), jokes, songs, a little cross-dressing and gorgeous dancing girls. Pretty much a pantomime for grown-ups.
Whilst the British burlesque scene faded from fashion somewhere around the end of the nineteenth century, morphing into a more family-orientated music hall variety performance, in the USA more titillating moves were incorporated into the acts in order to keep an increasingly male audience. This “bump and grind” form of burlesque dancing then evolved into striptease, which in itself faded at the availability of cinematic hardcore pornography in the latter part of the twentieth century. Vaudeville in the USA and variety in the UK switched platforms, through radio and film to television and back to the theatre. Burlesque too, enjoyed a revival in the late twentieth century, via New York and is now an accepted art form encapsulating everything from bump and grind striptease, through pole work, aerial work and classical burlesque involving a costume theme and cheeky humour. This new breed of female and male performers have much to thank the Victorian pioneers like Lydia Thompson (credited with bringing burlesque to the States), who challenged conventional societal expectations of what it was to be a theatrical performer and an astute independent businesswoman.
One such contemporary burlesque performer and business woman is Aurora Winterborn, founder of the critically acclaimed Candid Cabaret and member of the Kamikaze Girls alongside Poppy la Pilule and May Bee. As Ms Winterborn is on maternity leave this festival, she very graciously shimmied me through a selection of burlesque performances available at this year’s Fringe in order that audiences might or might not get lost in a whirlwind of sequins, pasties, basques and merkins. It’s your choice. Winterborn, like Thompson before her and modern burlesque’s figure-head, Dita Von Teese, was originally ballet-trained. Winterborn’s pivotal point came after watching, then studying with Scottish burlesque legend Gypsy Charms. Winterborn’s mission is to inspire audiences to see the artistic merits of pole-dancing, which, as some will be aware, requires immense core strength and flexibility, indeed it is fast becoming a popular way to keep fit.
From her time reviewing and as a paying customer in the past, Winterborn advises that a more expensive show does not always mean a better quality show and cabaret nights may change acts for different nights so it may not follow that quality is consistent throughout a run.
A sure bet for a quality variety night is Best of Burlesque – Godfather of burlesque’s Chaz Royal’s generously theatrical night with top acts incorporating the World Burlesque Games. As if that isn’t enough, late August audiences are in for an extra treat in the form of host, boylesque favourite Tom Harlow.
Winterborn’s mentor, Gypsy Charms, takes over the Voodoo Rooms after midnight on selected weekends with The Illicit Thrill. Darkly titillating to the live soundtrack by house blues band Black Cat Bone, this is one night that lives up to its promises.
Le Haggis, another formidable variety show complete with Scottish music promises to be another hot show incorporating lots of circus acts.
For a haphazard, absurdly funny cabaret at the Voodoo Rooms with added burlesque, the Magic Faraway Cabaret is hosted by adorable Dave the Bear. He is highly involved and so is the audience; it’s also part of the Free Fringe so there’s no excuse.
Opera-trained Lili la Scala is busy this August. A mesmerising compere, she hosts Another F*cking Variety Show throughout the month, promising top notch guests (performers for whom you may not be able to get a ticket) for a mighty hour and a half of late night entertainment. In case you can’t stay up that late, la Scala is also hosting The Big Cabaret Gala in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support; as it is afternoon it will be more PG.
Viva La Varieté mid evening mixed cabaret is blessed with a comprehensive taste of different acts so catch it during its short run.
For something a little more risqué, but with a good balance of humour, magic and the “most outstanding performers in the business” both male and female, La Clique’s VELVET is worth the high ticket price for the house band alone, according to Winterborn.
The wildcards in the variety pack, Mr Susie’s Last Chance Cabaret is absurdist comedy, a must if you like your entertainment sideways. Dandy Darkly’s Trigger Happy promises to be like a star-spangled John Cale on acid. And without the Welsh accent. His deadpan delivery mixed with pathos, bring an incongruous twist to the gruesome topics. Costume performer Elsie Diamond has great stage presence, says Winterborn and offers a glamorous, escapist trip into the past, whilst not dressing sensibly at all. Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl is the interesting true story of the first burlesque nightclub in Communist China; great for anyone interested in the history of burlesque and the cultural challenges faced by performers. All part of the Free Festival, so great value.
And now for something completely different. Miss Annabelle Sings fronts C U Next Tuesday Cabaret each (yes) Tuesday at Summerhall for a (not exclusively) LGBTI audience. Expect high camp, cross dressing every which way possible featuring the queerest of the Fringe as part of Dive. If you miss it, she also runs Cabaret Creatures, Wednesdays, which will be quirky to say the least.
Whatever the origins and the progression, the new wave of burlesque remains eccentric, risqué, often sexy, sometimes humorous, but always a celebration of the human form and undeniably entertaining.
*Please remember to check the company’s website prior to booking if you feel you may be offended by the content of the show.