Clockwork Quartet’s Chocolate Steampunk Cabaret – Old Horse Hospital

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Last night I went to the Horse Hospital (near Russell Square tube station & directly across from the Friend at Hand pub) to see what I think was the debut performance of the Clockwork Quartet, in an evening described as a “Chocolate Steampunk Cabaret.” The audience milling outside waiting for the doors to open boded well; in pith helmets, cravats, long skirts & corsets (one even had a bizarre “laser gun” like contraption strapped to his arm which turned out to be a water pistol), it was clear they’d dressed up for the evening. I was in work drag; oh well. I would have preferred to have had my red silk 1888 bustle dress on, but no time to go home and fetch it before the gig.

Inside was a very well set up situation for a cabaret; five or so table facing a stage with a strange engine in the rear middle an an unusual drim kit with pots and pans to the left. Meanwhile, the bar had a glass pipe contraption trickling absinthe (and chartreuse) over sugar cubes and into cut-glass cups below. The prices were fantastic: £2 for port, £1 for juices, and tea (how lovely!) for 50p. I bought a round of port but was then distracted by ladies with cigarette tray full of multi-colored rows of hand-wrapped truffles. Dark chocolate and madeira? White chocolate lemongrass? There were seven options and I wanted them all (and at 50p each, why not!). Ultimately my favorite was the dark chocolate cherry, and I noodled through three or four over the course of the show. What a perfect set up for the evening!

Thirty minutes or so later, the Clockwork Cabaret took the stage. The main group of musicians consists of a cellist, a violinist, a guitarist and a banjo player, all led by a handsome young conductor; there were also a variety of singers and multi-instrumentalists who were normally arranged as two percussionists; one accordion player; and one lady reading. This was all in addition to our “compere” (as she called herself) and primary chanteuse, a lovely, raven haired American who claimed to be from Albertville, Kansas. (There were some three additional men who came onstage later as a magician, a doctor, and a swordsman, but I can’t remember what they played; and at some point a man I hadn’t seen before trundled out behind the strange machinery at the back of the stage.)

The “gimmick” (as it were) was that this was a band that supposedly played in the 2nd class dining car on the London to Dover route (though of course I’m sure that no one was ever employed doing such a thing; much better to have set it on a dirigible). The songs they performed were the stories they used to tell our hostess, done in character by the various performers.

While the songs were modestly interesting and in what I thought was an appropriate steampunk style (two about mad inventors, one a crazed doctor and another a magician), the compositions themselves were weak as were most of the voices that sang them. That said, the men were uniformly better than the women, though, and two of them sang quite well. The best song of the evening was a fascinating one by the doctor (I think it might have been called “The Sorceress’ Wife”) in which he sang of his desperate search to find a cure for his paralytic wife; the chorus featured the two women singing a plea to be saved from death, embodying what he thought she was thinking as she lay there unable to speak. It got a rousing and well-deserved round of applause.

Overall I felt the group came off as full of ideas but needing some work; still, it was not a bad evening. It did make me long for the impeccable musicianship of the Asylum Street Spankers or the miraculous combination of showmanship and trombone playing that was Circus Contraption, but when I first saw those groups they were well beyond the “just starting” phase. I look forward to seeing them in a year or so, only this time I’ll remember to wear my own Victorian finery.

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