Burlesque London - Welcome to the Cabaret

Never trust a travel writer
London’s burlesque scene is divinely decadent. From Soho to Mayfair, the tease is being put back into striptease. Don't forget your bedroom eyes or chainmail basque.
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London is indulging in a naughty cabaret moment. From Soho to Mayfair, teasing is pleasing, vice is nice and burlesque is back in fashion. As Liza Minelli once sang, “Life is a Cabaret, old chum.”

 Burlesque artiste Dita von Teese, famed for putting the tease back into striptease, was recently celebrated at the Café Royal. Jude Law has been spotted partying at the cabaret nightclub, the Box Soho. As unreliable journalists know, two mentions make a trend.

In an Art Deco ballroom a petite model is soaping herself in a giant Martini glass. She’s not Dita von Teese but she is a tease. Her itsy-bitsy chainmail basque has lost its fight against gravity. Voyeurs crowd in for a closer look, conceivably for a sneaky crotch-shot as selfie. Her soul sister, possibly Milly von Squeeze, is stretched out like a naked sacrifice to London loucheness, bonding with her pert pole.

Sheraton Grand Frieze © Sheraton Grand
Sheraton Grand Frieze © Sheraton Grand

We women ponder whether von Squeeze is a true burlesque artiste, as opposed to a shameless exhibitionist with a bendy body. We clock the tributes to Berlin’s divinely decadent Kit Kat Club in Weimar Germany, chilling echoes of a society in decay. We can almost feel the rustle of vintage corsets on these glamorous goodtime girls. This is the Hollywood version of bleak Berlin, more Vegas than vice, more sparkle than sleaze, and definitely no Nazis gate-crashing the party. 

The London lads profess no such scientific interest in burlesque: it’s horizontal pole-dancing in real time. Tired of virtual sex, the sexting and the swiping, hungry hustlers clamber towards the stage for a better view. Violet light catches the smouldering models, revealing lashings of dusky pink flesh. We, too, might pole-dance if we looked this good in a chainmail basque, a garment designed to humiliate all but the bounciest burlesque dancers. Welcome to the Cabaret, Mein Herr!

It’s the launch party for the Sheraton Grand on Piccadilly “to echo its 1920s heyday as the hangout of choice for socialites, celebrities and the aristocracy in the heart of Mayfair.” The Sheraton’s London flagship has undergone a retro-style renovation, channelling its inner diva with splashes of bordello pink and frescoes of cavorting cherubs. Instead of making her excuses and leaving, your London diarist laps it up. Life in genteel Wimbledon has never looked tamer.

The revamp is a kitsch version of Art Deco meets Up Pompeii in sludgy pinks and muddy greens, interspersed with glittering metallic pillars and lurid Pompeiian frescoes. Between a candyfloss girl and comical stilt-walkers I espy actor James Norton, lately of War and Peace, along with actress Kara Tointon and singer Vanessa White. More mundanely, I also spot a sheepish fellow journalist. As travel writers who rarely get out, let alone to bordellos, we are too busy gawping to talk.

Victoria Grant Hall of Fame at the Cafe Royal © Cafe Royal
Victoria Grant Hall of Fame at the Cafe Royal © Cafe Royal

Billed as a Roaring Twenties party, it is more like burlesque in 1930s Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood-style. Camp, gold-dressed pretty boys lead us past carnival stilt-walkers into the Art Deco ballroom and Berlusconi burlesque. After enough Champagne, watching naked, fire-eating girls clambering into giant cocktail glasses becomes the new normal. We, too, are drowning in Moet et Chandon.

Carnivalesque themes coalesce and blur into Mayfair debauchery: a Poirot-style murder mystery drama in the ballroom segues into Victoriana in the main bar, with chirpy street urchins pretending to pick pockets. A girl dressed as candyfloss designed by Dali feeds sweets to her favourite swains. Italian opera-singers launch into Nessun Dorma beside Venetian gondolier acrobats whose boats have clearly gone aground. An old-school barber whips drunken male guests into a lather. An African drummer dances to his own beat. Sexy chefs bring out a moveable feast, led by risotto-stirrers, ice cream-makers and Parma ham slicers sharpening their knives in readiness for a Mob massacre.

Sheraton Grand Lobby © Sheraton Grand
Sheraton Grand Lobby © Sheraton Grand

Despite a sprinkling of D-list celebs, the party is mostly all about celebrating London debauchery. I spot fifty-something society matrons locking lips with bashful guys who look like their sons. Dalmatian pups are led by matching black-and-white models. Strictly Come Dancing wannabees from Essex are masquerading as Bright Young Things from Mayfair, or perhaps it’s the other way round.

London’s cabaret moment continues in the Café Royal, a landmark Nash terrace and haunt for rock stars, royalty and riff raff writers. In sedate Regent Street, the Café Royal has long dined out on its louche past. This is where Oscar Wilde supposedly fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, where David Bowie celebrated Ziggy Stardust and where Elizabeth Taylor danced the night away. Reborn as a clubby hotel, the Café Royal is still the place for high tea in the gilded splendour of the Oscar Wilde Bar, where Oscar dined daily.

It’s far too late for tea but the Café Royal cultivates its bohemian air, including in its flamboyant fashion shows, cabarets and scandalous society parties. As Wilde was fond of saying, “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” At London Fashion Week, Victoria Grant's Hat Hall of Fame recently displayed head-turning hats here, creations worn by burlesque artiste Dita Von Teese, along with couture pieces crafted for Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Cara Delevigne and David Bowie. Oscar Wilde would have had a witty word for them all, ranging from “Illusion is the first of all pleasures” to “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

Sheraton Grand Bar © Sheraton Grand
Sheraton Grand Bar © Sheraton Grand

Tonight there’s no sign of mad hatters or cabaret artistes so I head back to the Sheraton Grand for a nightcap. Even devoid of smouldering models, the Grand’s Mercante restaurant is surprisingly stylish, its black and white retro photographs evoking a dolce vita Rome. With its perch on Piccadilly, the adjoining Smith & Whistle bar is equally alluring, its secret snugs cast in a palette of bronze and black. The bar celebrates the 1920s “Golden Age of Cocktails” but Wilde would simply have sighed, “Work is the cure of the drinking classes,” while helping himself to another brandy or absinthe. Despite my inebriated state, I can’t fall into an Art Deco bedroom.  All beds are presumably booked by Drag queens and dancing Dalmations dressed in chainmail basques. Oscar Wilde would probably have approved, provided his bed-mates didn’t yap at breakfast: “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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