The ultra-commercial end of the carnivalesque market. That’s the variety-show, La Clique, currently playing at the London Hippodrome. It’s very much the queer people doing their thing for the straights. No one in the audience dressed up for the show, and it was punctuated by inducements to the patrons to buy programs and overpriced drinks at the bar. Let not that deter you, though: with a sense of the feel-good as well as the freakish, it still makes for a happily rollicking night out.
Fancy watching a double-jointed ‘rubber man’ push his body through the frame of a tennis racket a mere ten inches in diameter, squeezing it painfully over protuberant nipple rings? Listening to a mountainous black drag queen singing Radiohead’s ‘I’m a Creep’, her voice vibrating somewhere between Shirley Bassey and Antony & the Johnsons? Clapping as a girl burns off her pasties and the front of her g-string with a cigarette bummed from the crowd? Well ladies and gentlemen, well fellow tourists and suburbanites, La Clique is the walk on the wild-side we’ve waiting for. Prepare to laugh and groan and sing Queen lyrics during proceedings, and to applaud a lot at the end.
What struck me most during La Clique was how little removed this kind of show is from the variety theatre or music halls of the late-Victorian years. Certainly, the knowing queerness of some of its acts gives La Clique an inflection that variety theatre did not possess back in the day of the portly queen. But still, the similarities are striking enough. There’s the same emphasis on physical oddity, the same exhibition of bodily virtuosity, a similar instance of cross-dressing and the encouragement of participation from the crowd. Even the hard sell with the drinks, I gather, is pretty much the same. Then of course there’s the tendency to blue humour: Laura Ormiston Chant surely turns in her grave when La Clique begins of a night.
Seeing La Clique at the London Hippodrome, in the heart of the West End’s Theatreland, emphasised these historical connections for me. As a consequence, the whole night was full of the ghosts of variety-acts, adding an agreeably spectral dimension to its boisterous display.