Naughty but so nice

From the West End to the East Rand, vintage style meets modern pop in a saucy burlesque show.

From the West End to the East Rand, vintage style meets modern pop in a saucy burlesque show.

The West End hit The Hurly Burly Show will open in Johannesburg this month. It is a mélange of erotic burlesque, brazen new arrangements of big hits and alluring nostalgia. Given our puritanical past and our libertarian present, Hurly Burly is bound to cause a stir on the dreary East Rand.

The show stars Miss Polly Rae, one of the leading figures on the London burlesque scene. Her official biography tells us: “Miss Rae takes her creative inspiration from iconic 1940s and 1950s pin-ups such as Bettie Page, Tempest Storm and Marilyn Monroe, as well as modern artists such as Madonna.”

The Mail & Guardian interviewed Miss Rae in the genteel lounge of the Westcliff Hotel. She had just enjoyed a luncheon and was dressed in a wine-coloured pencil dress, had full make-up on and a spray of flowers in her hair. One got the feeling that Miss Rae had mastered the fine art of living large in a dainty time warp.

You have said that the hit show Hurly Burly is the ‘creation of your idea’ – but how do you create an idea?
Well, seven years ago I was a juggling artist trying to find my way in life. I met someone who teaches burlesque – Jo King, who runs the London Academy of Burlesque. At the time I had no idea what burlesque was. I thought it was the Pussycat Dolls, which it really is not. She completely inspired me to get involved and she opened me up to this whole history. Burlesque was pioneered in the 1940s and 1950s and it has this element of comedy, striptease and parody that comes with it. It was those elements that inspired me. Once I discovered it, I saw the potential to take it further. I got a few friends together, made up a few routines – and now here we are in South Africa.

Once I knew burlesque was what I wanted to concentrate on, I knew I wanted to create the biggest burlesque show the world has ever seen. I’ve been building it up very slowly and the tipping point was when I met [director] William Baker three years ago. And now we have had a West End show.

What is the concept of the show?
Hurly Burly I like to describe as a burlesque-inspired pop-erotic cabaret. What makes it unique is its modern soundtrack. We wear vintage clothing but we do modern music. For example, back in the day we did a number by Nelly Furtado, but as 1920s flapper girls.

With Will [Baker] we have brought in an incredible music director called Steve Anderson and new arrangements. For example, we do Bad by Michael Jackson, but we do a really dirty, sleazy blues version of it. We do a Japanese-inspired version of Umbrella by Rihanna and a big, bad brass version of It’s a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys. We have more than 20 different numbers and each number has a theme – we’ve got nuns; we’ve got geishas. It’s like an elaborate ­theatrical pop concert.

Is it very erotic?
It’s adult entertainment. It’s not overtly sexual – it’s more about insinuation. There is nudity, but we wear crystal [nipple] pasties and thongs. It’s more about what you don’t see than about what you do see. The audiences we get for the show are really varied and straight men are the last on the list. It’s predominantly women who come to see the show – it’s more for the women and the gays, really.

Obviously you are into vintage clothing. How much do you have?

I have an abundance! And I really want to know about vintage shops in Johannesburg. Someone is going to have to tell me where I can go shopping. With burlesque came this whole lifestyle and this whole look. Before, I was very much a High Street girl. The thing is, I’m very much a porcelain-skinned girl and I always used to wear a self-made tan and I used to lie on a sunbed. Then I discovered burlesque and the 1940s look. First of all, my skin was perfect for that – and now I don’t go out without my red lipstick and my lashes. I’ve got a million 1950s prom dresses – that’s what I collect. And I love to jive.

Are there plenty of environments in London where you can parade your clothing and get your ­vintage fix?
Yes, especially in London, and not up north where I come from. In London there is a huge vintage scene – looking good and going out. The clothing is part and parcel of it, but it comes with nightlife and a social scene.

There are clubs in London, typically housed in the basements of nightclubs or bars, in which every single person is dressed from the 1940s or the 1950s. The DJ will only play real, authentic vinyl. There’s a place called Volupte that is home to the Black Cotton Club. It is run by the coolest man I know – his name is El Nino and he is the DJ. He and his wife from Japan, Lady Kamikaze, look incredible. They put on these nights and play their 45s.

Everyone is just there to dance. There’s never any trouble. If a man asks you to dance, he doesn’t want to sleep with you – he just wants to dance with you. It’s really traditional.

The Hurly Burly Show will open at the Theatre of Marcellus at Emperor’s Palace in Kempton Park on October 27. Tel: 011 928 1297

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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