One of the country’s most famous burlesque performers and winner of 2015’s Best Burlesque Act at the London Cabaret Awards, Miss Polly Rae is a one-of-a-kind act. The jewel in the crown of her London performances is ‘Between The Sheets’, an intimate boudoir cabaret experience coming to its third season this year at London Wonderground. We catch up with her to find out more about the new show, the history of burlesque and modern innovations.
London Calling: Tell me about ‘Between The Sheets’.
Polly Rae: It’s a contemporary cabaret variety show based on all things ‘in the bedroom’. It’s about everything saucy, everything sexy, super fun with loads of comedy.
LC: And it’s been running for a few years?
PR: It’s been evolving over the last five years. We’ve been in London Wonderground for three seasons now. Every year we’ve had more shows and built up the concept. I’m working with a team I’ve worked with for a long time. One is a burlesque artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a famous burlesque star. It’s directed by a girl called Laura Corcoran, who performs in a cabaret duo called Frisky & Mannish. We’re a family of creatives with a passion for making new things. As the years have gone by the show’s got bigger and better. This season we’re really going all-out.
LC: What new things can people expect to see?
PR: The main thing about the show is that it’s an ensemble performance. A lot of typical cabaret shows are variety shows with lots of independent acts. Although we have a lot of solo acts, we’ve spent most time on the ensemble numbers. We have a few new additions to the cast. One’s an incredible aerialist who does a fantastic straps act. We also have a new male duet, Tom Cunningham and Miles Brown, who do a spoof of Magic Mike. We call it ‘boylesque’, this fun, sexy tribute to Magic Mike which is going down really well with audiences. Each time we do more of the ensemble stuff, we spend more time on the costuming, the visuals, the props and the lighting. It’s bigger and better each time.
LC: What’s the difference exactly between burlesque and cabaret?
PR: You could consider burlesque a form of cabaret. We encapsulate burlesque, circus, singing, dancing and comedy. Burlesque is a facet of cabaret. A cabaret show is about engaging the audience and breaking the fourth wall. It makes it very intimate; we get up close and personal with people. For this kind of show it’s really fun to involve people in the sensual, saucy side of things. People might find it a bit risqué and OTT – and it certainly is – but we bring the comedy in to make everyone feel relaxed. I, as Miss Polly Rae, host the show. I’m inviting everyone into my boudoir and to see the saucy things that happen there.
LC: In burlesque the feeling of intimacy must be really crucial. Can it be a challenge to create that in a big theatre?
PR: Where we are now is a Spiegeltent which is perfect. The way the tent is formatted, you can see peoples’ faces. In a big theatre, where sometimes there are shows, you can’t really get the heart and soul of cabaret. With rows of seating you can’t get out into the audience. If you connect with one person you’re kind of connecting everyone together. I love the London Wonderground, it allows you to have a huge audience but you still have that dark cabaret feel. It’s the best of both worlds.
LC: Since part of cabaret is about vintage style and music, are there people who do more modern shows?
PR: Burlesque was pioneered in 1940s and 50s America. We had a resurgence about ten or fifteen years ago, in part due to Dita Von Teese. Now you have standard burlesque, which we call classical, with vintage style, music and fashion. I used to be very focused on the vintage but now I use the concepts and traditions of burlesque but bringing it into the 21st century. We use modern music for our soundtrack. It’s still burlesque, but of our time. We call it neo-burlesque.
Burlesque has become very experimental over the years. Now performers are not only trying contemporary music and styling but they’re also using different disciplines. Many like to use skills, like there’s a fire performance in our show, or someone with circus skills. It’s about combining different skills with the art of burlesque. It’s about making yourself unique.
The old movie ‘Gypsy’ with Natalie Wood is the story of one of the most famous burlesque stars that ever lived. It’s a brilliant musical and one of the songs is called ‘You Gotta Have A Gimmick’ – you’ve got to have something about you as a burlesque entertainer that makes you different. It’s just as relevant today as it was back then. I also want to make the burlesque in the show contemporary so it appeals to a wider audience. You are going to get people who like vintage burlesque in my show, but also people interested in pop and fashion. I like to tick as many boxes as possible to get a well-rounded experience.
LC: Are there any burlesque artists using new technology in their acts?
PR: There definitely are. We’re in a technological era, it’s about light shows. There are a lot of artists using video projections. At the Crazy Horse in Paris Dita Von Teese just launched a new show where she has some video projections. We haven’t got the budget for that yet, but it’s about making something modern and relevant. There’s a troupe using LED costumes. It’s about seeing what we can get our hands on to get some art out of it. Taking something that wasn’t originally part of a burlesque performance and making it cabaret.
LC: What are the best burlesque acts that we could see in London apart from Between The Sheets?
PR: Come and see the Soho Burlesque Club at the Hippodrome Casino – that’s my show as well!
LC: That’s cheating!
PR: It’s very rare that you go and see a show these days that’s purely burlesque. But there are many cabaret shows that incorporate burlesque. One I really recommend is called Seven Sins at Café de Paris on Friday nights. It’s a cabaret show with a burlesque element. All the artforms are starting to blend together to make one spectacular variety cabaret show.
Between The Sheets with Miss Polly Rae is at London Wonderground is on some Thursdays between June and September. For more information on dates and to book tickets, see online.
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