Saturday, December 20, 2014

'Cabaret Confidential' at The Pheasantry, 18th December 2014

I've had good times in Pizza Express.  Sure the quality of the pizzas varies drastically from location to location, but I've never had a truly bad Giardiniera pizza (artichokes, mushrooms, peppers and olives yum).  And let's face it, any establishment that can successfully transform their offcuts into delicious garlic butter doughballs clearly has its business head screwed firmly on.

But it's a place I usually go after I've been out to somewhere.  Tonight's venue, The Pheasantry on the King's Road turns out to be inside a Pizza Express, the acts competing for attention with steaming piles of cheese, tomatoes and clinking glasses of mid-priced wine. The walls crow about the venue's sterling musical credibility; the faces of Jagger, Reed, Lennon and McCartney beaming down at you from the walls.  Apparently Eric Clapton used to live here.

But in December 2014 this countercultural credibility has been smothered under a beige tidal wave.  From the corporate art on the walls to the scratchy office-style corrugated carpet this not a place that inspires dizzying artistic passion.  In fact, the overall impression is that you're stuck in the secondary Lounge Bar of a cruise ship that's soon destined for a Chinese breaker's dock.

I don't want to sound like a snob, but hanging out in a branch of Pizza Express without any desire to eat pizza isn't my idea of a good time.  But then I'd be a fool to judge the night without seeing the acts, right?  Cabaret Confidential bills itself as a showcase for up and coming cabaret acts, allowing them to try out new material on a friendly audience. Our compère is Jamie Anderson, whose brooch-laden blazer and talon-like claws brings a smidge of much-needed razzle-dazzle to the room.  After a song and a bit of crowd-massaging stand-up we're off.

Claire Hawkins is on first and her act makes my heart sink a bit.  Don't get me wrong, she's a fantastic singer and a charismatic stage presence, but someone singing pleasant showtunes is precisely what I feared most.  This is entertainment that appears eager not to distract from the process of pizza consumption.  Perhaps my problem is that I don't actually know any of these semi-obscure numbers.  She looks like she's having fun belting them out, but I'm feeling a gnaw of panic in my gut.  How the hell am I supposed to say anything constructive about this?  It's good.  She hits the right notes.  The covers are alright.  What's left to say?

Things get a bit more interesting with a jauntily satirical Christmas tune about elves from A Woman Named Fred, who dons a woolly hat and sings about the misery of spending all year working for a nordic slavemaster on plastic tat for brats.  

My enjoyment of the evening has taken a tick upwards.  But it skyrockets once Marianna Harlotta struts onto the stage.  She's a Spanish diva, with a usual audience of royalty, state leaders and the Sultan of Brunei.  But tonight she (and her much put-upon violinist Vladimir Chestikoff) are playing to the Pizza Express crowd.  Her style is a breathless, yelping soprano backed by staccato violin stabs.  It sounds weird, as if she's self-taught from a half legible book on showmanship in singing.

She opens with the Talking Heads' Psycho Killer, so she's got my heart in her manicured claws from minute one.  Following it up she rattles through the unlikely combination of Beat It, I Am The Walrus, Toxic and, as tis' the season, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. During the last one she reluctantly invites us to sing along - though how on earth can we follow her on over her vocal high-wire?

The final act is Celia Delaneywinner of Best Newcomer award at the London Cabaret Awards, backed by Sarah Hobson on piano.  Her act is scaling a torturous mountain of self-deprecation.  I can't quite tell what portions of her situation are fictional and which aren;t, but as she tells it she fell asleep as a 30 year old single and fancy-free Londoner and woke up having spent 10 years living in Devon married to a balding engineer. Having ditched the engineer she's back in the Big Smoke determined to scrabble to the top of the showbiz tree.

Her songs are the equal parts funny and depressing exploits of a middle-aged woman contending with dating, biology, flat-hunting and sex in modern London.  Lyrically she's razor sharp, with a beautiful eye for evocative imagery and clever rhymes, coupled with a whipcrack tongue that nimbly dances over syllables and glottal stops.  You quickly see why she won that award, combining pathos, dark humour and casual sexiness into a consistently fun act.

So, probably the best night's entertainment I've ever had in a Pizza Express.  Though to be fair the only competition is when I overheard an engaged couple call off their wedding after a fierce and teary argument in the Clerkenwell branch.  It's definitely not the most inspiring theatrical space in the world, but hey, the acts were good and there's okay mid-price pizza. And really, does that sound so bad?  I'm glad I went. 

Cabaret Confidential is on monthly at The Pheasantry, King's Road, Chelsea.  Tickets and information here.

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