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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 2003.

It 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.

There 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' See


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