It was one of the birthplaces of alternative comedy. Then it was a sleek new theatre poleaxed by Covid. And, as a long-time sister venue to one-time fleshpot Raymond’s Revuebar, it enjoys a decades-long association with Soho’s seedier nighttime activities.
That looked like what I might be getting at Bernie Dieter’s Club Kabarett, which began with our fishnetted hostess draped louchely over various men in the audience. Welcome to a new era for Soho’s Boulevard theatre, now taken over by fringe mainstays the Underbelly, who will run it as a burlesque, cabaret and variety hub – a vision launched by Club Kabarett and the Japanese-American live gameshow Batsu!
It’s the second new dawn for the venue in half a decade, after it was (re)launched with much fanfare in 2019 as a producing house with a revolving auditorium and eight different staging configurations. The Covid pandemic nixed that ambition, and the space lay dormant until its landlord Soho Estates offered the Underbelly – an organisation hitherto resident, if at all, in an inflatable upside-down purple cow – its first permanent, bricks-and-mortar venue. It is now up-and-running, and its opening double-bill – La Clique-style circus cabaret with sexy stylings; and sub-Jackass improv for the party crowd – suggests, well, it’ll probably do just fine.
There’s plenty to enjoy in Bernie Dieter’s cabaret, even if I wished we could enjoy it without the affectation of illicit carnality. The theatre is configured in-the-round for this one, with acts performing on (or above) a central dais, and “Weimar jazz punk” musical/vocal accompaniment supplied behind the seating banks. There’s some flabbergasting stuff: the aerialist (and fire breather) Bella Diosa swinging by her hair, which has got to smart; the Seifert Sisters doing things together on a trapeze that most of us couldn’t even contemplate on solid ground. There’s a razor-swallowing routine that recalls Penn and Teller’s famous number with needles, which goes a bit wrong tonight, and sultry singing between acts by our Teutonic MC.
If there are bum notes, they’re to do with the context in which these lingerie-clad acrobatics are being staged. Dieter ends the show with a rousing speech celebrating misfits and the right to be different. Who wouldn’t agree? – save to point out that the homily is being delivered in a slick venue with a distinctly corporate vibe, and stalls seats at up to £64.50 a pop – a price to rule many a misfit and dissenter out. The same goes for the night’s effortful, Ann Summers sexiness, which might, were we in some shebeen or speakeasy, generate a frisson – but which, in these spick-and-span surrounds, immediately after work, feels like so much cosplaying of the artform’s countercultural roots.
Batsu is a Japanese comedy format in which comics compete in challenges, and are punished for losing. The show Batsu! has already diverted late-night crowds in New York and Chicago for a decade, and now arrives in London after an Edinburgh run. When I was a kid, Clive James used to screen clips of Japanese gameshows, eyebrow cocked, and we all marvelled at how exotically weird they were. Ah, but the world has shrunk, and now Brits too are expected to delight as contestants lick soy sauce off a man’s sumo-sized belly, or get ridden horse-like while their backsides are flicked with a riding crop.
Some of these jeopardies are mildly amusing; some are feeble. Between them, four (male) performers play familiar improv games: story die, guess the word and so on. The improv never builds momentum; it’s a means to an end, and the end (announced with glee by vermilion-haired ringleader Brian Walters) is the various punishments for failure: being shot with a paint-gun, accosted by a martinet ballet teacher, or made to down another glass of sake.
It’s all likably arbitrary and has few pretensions: this is unsophisticated late-night entertainment for weekend drinkers, not as outrageous as it thinks it is, but outrageous enough to divert a tipsy crowd. Again, you wonder if a high-end boutique theatre is quite the context for fratboy japes such as these. But Batsu! seemed happy. “This is the first time we’ve ever been in a two-floor theatre!,” Walters announced to cheers at the end. Not the most earth-shattering landmark with which to launch the Underbelly Boulevard – but it’s a start.
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