Review: Can you do sleaze in an embassy?
asks Mark Down, who went to see Soma International's
'Cabaret Decadanse' at the Canadian High Commission, London, Oct
took me a while to place this piece because it didn't seem all that
camp to begin with, but after about the fourth lip-synched Broadway
song I realised where it was coming from -this is gay Canadian puppetry,
a sort of drag act with puppets.
The strength of this is that the lip-synching in this context isn't
just a puppet thing, it's also a drag act thing, and so it has a
broader context than, say, The Muppets, and that, for me, is good
-it's Priscilla Queen of the Desert done with puppets, and without
the desert; It's good fun, brilliant puppetry, witty, inventive
and all that sort of thing. The weakness is you gotta love that
music, and after half an hour I was desperate for a change in rhythm,
or format, or pace, anything: a change in costume isn't enough.
In fact what I really wanted was a story.
The story, such as it was, was carried by a screamingly awful female
MC (who normally does it in French) reading from a script in English,
in which she quite often pretended to be arguing with someone off
stage. No... What? No I'm not going to say that..." - that
sort of thing. It was all quite unconvincing. She had one leg sticking
out of her dress, stood on Perspex platforms, and I spent most of
the time wondering if her abundant red hair was real or a wig. However,
after hearing everyone bitching about her afterwards in the usual
terribly clever "if-I-had-directed-this-show-there-is-no-way-I-would-have-done-that-what-were-they-thinking?"
way, I beg to differ... After the event, she is the most memorable
thing about the show: the most unusual, the most strange, in effect
the only aspect of the show to think about.
is everything to consider. Why did they have her in it? Why did
she do it like that? How did she feel about not getting any laughs
for her jokes? Is she funny in French? But more than that: the puppetry
was so good, and the content of the show so unambitious, that they
had perfected it. It was a spectacular, but almost too finished
to really enjoy. The
execution was so airtight it couldn't really breathe. It was barely
alive. In contrast she provided a looseness, a tawdriness, a slap-happy
amateurishness that was refreshing, and an essential break from
the claustrophobic puppetry.
She also spoke -with her real voice. The effect
was very Eurotrash, very Channel 5, almost sort of porno. It was
contemporary, young, hip, sexy. And that got the show under everyone's
radar. Instead of these tedious little pieces of meaningless confection
that normally gets served up by the mime and visual theatre world,
here was a little bit of eccentricity. And the porno feeling seems
right too. The puppetry was slick as really good manipulation often
is. And in terms of musical theatre tribute puppetry, well it was
what it was and it was very fine. But its subject matter, as the
title suggests, was sleaze, and this is where the MC was a stroke
of genius really. A bad MC is sleazier than a slick one. It introduces
a reality into the piece. And that is exactly what it needed.
I'd better tell you about the show itself: it features
about eight or nine songs lip-synched by some wonderful puppets,
operated beautifully by two visible male puppeteers who occasionally
interact by lending a leg or a hand or their whole body. The puppets
vary from a Nina Simone (my favourite) to a life sized French Diva,
to a sock who does kind of Doris Day numbers on the beach, and makes
love to a hand: there's a wonderful moment where she grips the sheet
in ecstasy. It really is marvellous puppetry and it would storm
the Vauxhall Tavern on Sunday afternoon. It may go down really well
in theatres too, but it will always get a slightly snotty response
from the art crowd. I hope that doesn't make them throw out what
most people seemed to agree was the main problem with the show.
I was impressed and quite amused by the puppetry, but I will remember
the MC for a long time...
Further information from the company: 'Soma International was founded
in 1999 by three friends, all puppeteers (Serge Deslauriers, Enock
Turcotte and Raynald Michaud), Soma amazes, disconcerts and entertains
an international audience, mainly with adult puppetry productions'