Bernie Dieter’s ‘punk kabarett’ act headlines the Southbank’s Underbelly Festival with a perfect blend of classical Weimar subversion and modern escapism.
For the purist, LITTLE DEATH CLUB has all the essential high-quality cabaret features: torch song, droll drag comedy, circus spectacle and – with added frisson for a British venue – extra-butt-clenchingly intimate audience interaction. The show, masterminded by the mistress of ceremonies Dieter and creative director Tom Velvick, distinguishes itself with added lashings of compassionate smut that supercharge the sexual energy of the room but create no guilt. The show is funny and raunchy whilst always feeling kind-hearted and joyous – even when it’s titillatingly intrusive. If you haven’t yet sampled cabaret, let LITTLE DEATH CLUB be your initiation: it may spoil all future sensational spectacles, but what an honour that your first experience should set the bar so high!
It’s no coincidence that LITTLE DEATH CLUB is billed first at the Underbelly this summer. Overlooking the Thames by the idyllic Jubilee Gardens, the Spiegeltent is siren song and sanctuary for the city’s misfits, miscreants and fatigued. As Deiter explains, ‘Weimar Kabarett is dominated by two main themes – sex and politics’. Yet, Deiter, with her cast and band, manage to deliver sexy and politically-relevant entertainment without pity or preaching. Where Sam Mendes’ 2014 revival of Cabaret uses a performance/drinking space to telegraph pathos (and perhaps sound a prescient alarm) Dieter and Velvick’s 2019 show conveys empathy, hope and much-needed pleasure to an audience for whom the alarm is already deafening and the exits are locked.
This 60-minute spectacle of vaudeville, circus and Brecht’s “smokers’ theatre” offers simple diversion through total experiential immersion. Whilst the programme advertises “no seat is safe” the production is not “challenging” but enveloping. The live band who open the show are accomplished and of a quality that would merit attending a concert of theirs in its own right. Likewise, Bernie Dieter’s singing voice is as rich and tuneful as her wit is scorching. Beau Sargent particularly delights the audience with a physical performance that starts as if we are to expect freak show contortion and very rapidly transforms into an aerial ballet that would garner whoops of delight even without Dieter’s commanding warm-up routine.
Make no mistake: this show is for adults – but in no way is it pornographic or gratuitous. Fancy Chance spins by her hair in a mesmerising turn that doesn’t mimic flying because (there really is no other way to describe it) she is actually flying. The moment demands she whip off her angel costume; not to ogle her naked body but to prove she has no harnesses or ropes supporting her flight.
Part of the beauty of Dieter and Velvick’s vaudeville is that, whilst it has no narrative, it understands pacing and variation. In the hands of less accomplished impresarios, so much spectacle could be exhausting but LITTLE DEATH CLUB provides light and shade, controlling awe and tension with precision and command.
Tippi the jaded mime (played by Josh Glanc) gives the audience a hilarious but relatively gentle comedy routine that could largely be enjoyed across the generations without squirming, whereas Bernie’s own staccato cultural observations or Tourettes-like musical interventions whilst chatting to the crowd are piercingly ribald and delight not because they shock but because they’re so very true.
Perhaps the greatest treat of LITTLE DEATH CLUB is that it offers proximity to the action in a way so rarely afforded at this price-point and of this quality. There is not a bad view in the house. With a finale featuring flame-swallowing meeting burlesque at a new level by Kitty Bang-Bang, the suspense of the near-danger is not intermediated by distance or effects.
With just enough tradition and heaps of innovation, LITTLE DEATH CLUB is affirming and adventurous entertainment at its best.
Review by Mary Beer
Bernie Dieter, the much-loved Mistress of Chaos, is joined by whisky-soaked, fire-breathing, utterly bad ass bearded lady Kitty Bang Bang; character comedian and disgruntled mime Josh Glanc; the unique vocal stylings and razor-sharp wit of Myra DuBois; gender-bending contortionist and phenomenal aerialist Beau Sargent; and pocket rocket, hair hanging supremo Fancy Chance.
Blending sequins and satire with a cut-throat wit, and a deviant eye for debaucherous mayhem, Bernie Dieter is here to shake up the Southbank! There’s a drag queen draped across the bar, a morose mime drowning his sorrows in a bottle of red and a bearded lady dancing in the shadows as Bernie sips her gin and surveys her prey.
Little Death Club
Performance Dates Thursday 18th April – Sunday 23rd June 2019
Friday, Sunday – 7.15pm
Running time 60 minutes
Location Underbelly Festival Southbank, Jubilee Gardens, off Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX