Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Bogard’

Review – The Caravan Society – National Trust’s Queer City pop up members’ bar

March 29, 2017

The period between the end of the Christmas revels and Easter is a bit of a dead time theatrically speaking. I mean, sure, there’s been a couple of big openings (Almeida’s Hamlet – all sold out; Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – good enough; Imelda Staunton in Virginia Woolf – a bit long) but nothing earthshaking. Into this wasteland (by London standards, and I am spoiled) strutted a glimmer of hope in the odd guise of the National Trust, hosting a Marchtime celebration called Queer City London, which appeared to be some daytime walks accompanied by some rather vague evening shenanigans at some place called The Caravan Society. When the tickets went on sale, I wasn’t really entirely sure what this “club” was going to be, so I got a variety of tickets – to a tour, to an evening opening with no program, and to one of the Queer City Nights series of “talks, debates and performances” that came with a slightly higher price tag. The evening events appeared to be selling out under my feet … and I was just getting my tickets 15 minutes after they had gone on sale! Good God, what kind of madness was this? Had I inadvertently come upon the hottest event of the London spring calendar?

The tour of historic queer Soho was great for context on what life was like in London before the decriminalization of homosexuality. But given that all of the ticketed evening events were at a recreation of “The Caravan Society” – one of the clubs regularly raided during the bad old days – I have to say I wasn’t really feeling very optimistic based on the unimpressive preview of the space we had at the end of our walk. Some couches against a wall, a bit of drapery hanging from the ceiling – we were supposed to believe that this was the “pouf’s brothel” so hatefully described in the old police papers? The little table with a bit of makeup on it and some photostat letters just did nothing for me. It was like trying to imagine a fantastic roast dinner from a dried up bone. It wasn’t even the same building as the original Caravan Society. I felt let down.

But I held out hope for what would grow when it was night time, the venue was filled with cheerful people, and the lovely MC Ralph Bogard was working at stirring up some magic. And when I came back on Thursday night – cheekily asking for a ticket at the door – I suddenly found myself in a vibrant, warm, boundary-erasing environment that was everything I could have hoped for and more.

The room was dimly lit, hazy (with dry ice fog, not smoke), and something lovely was playing through the gramophone. We slid onto a tucked-away couch and immediately struck up a conversation with the people sharing our nook. Why hello! What brings you here? And how do you get a drink …?

While we were still getting ourselves settled, the Master of Ceremonies took the stage to announce the Caravan Carousel, which required us to …. gasp … get up and start conversations with TOTAL STRANGERS. How un-English! And yet people went for it easily, and goodness only knows there were many, many people there that looked well worth talking to … what a nice excuse to go say hello! So off we went, canoodling and carousing, finding that a space that struggled to hold 50 people was far more full of life and interest than you would have ever expected just based on math.

Then it was time for performances. I saw several performers over the many evenings I attended (because oh yes I did go back), ranging from the debonair Dorian Black to the extremely tasty Mister Meredith and the lubricious “Mercury” (both of whom wound up wearing considerably less clothing than when they started) … not to mention Lili LaScala, Tricity Vogue, and whoever that half-naked dancing boy was they had in on closing night. VA VA VOOM. In between their numbers – danced on the small raised platforms in the middle of the room, but also done amongst us – indeed there was a real focus on audience interaction – the performers mingled and visited and spoke to us hoi polloi as if they were one of us. Oof!
But …. but maybe we were! Because one of the other fabulous features of the Caravan Society is that we, the audience, were asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment with our various “party tricks” (as Mr Bogard called them when he circulated amongst us attempting to tease out a predilection for showmanship). And people did! I heard limericks and regular poetry, watched people do the splits and handstands, heard songs … what a wonderful bunch of talent we all had! We were encouraged to participate with the promise of a box of chocolates at the end, but could there have possibly have been a better reward that the approbation and admiration of our fellow society members? It didn’t seem possible. Even the bar staff and doormen were effusive with the few and the brave … who would not want that tiny moment of stardust? It made all of us glow a little brighter to have so much of it to share.

The evening ended each night I attended with a mock police raid – just whistles and the talent being hustled down the back stairs, while a voice overhead recited a plea to be released … and sent home with one of the “nice boys” in blue. In retrospect, The Caravan Society was a fun night with a clever concept that well repaid its trivial ticket price. And yet … I felt it was more than that. The tour had talked about clubs where clearly people were looking for more than just a place to drink; a place where they could be in their community and not continuing the pretense they used as a shelter in their everyday lives. A place where you could wear lipstick and nail polish and not be beat up or shunned … a place to drop the mask and maybe make a few new friends. I know that feeling; I spend my life pretending to be a nice married lady but I can’t be honest about my life or where my heart lies in my day to day life. Society wants you to keep a cork in it and not talk about feelings or not fitting in; we’re just supposed to suck it up. And let’s be honest, even while being gay (in the big cities at least) has become more acceptable, even within the community there is bashing on people for being too effeminate, inappropriately bisexual, or just generally not fitting tightly enough into some box that people find a comfortable way to categorize.

But once upon a time, it was all of us against all of the people that wanted us to stay in the closet, keep our mouths shut, and pretend like we fitted in. We had to support each other. We need to support each other still. And in this fantastic space of queerness, the Caravan Society of 2017 brought us back to our roots; one community, supporting each other in our diversity, uniqueness, imperfections, and mutual realization that We Just Aren’t Like Them. And for those few nights, a comet blazed across Soho, and all of us had a place where we could be glorious together and set the world on fire. We had the Caravan Society, and I can only hope that its light shines on into the rest of this year.

(Apologies to any performers I did not get to see or mention. Thank you to the wonderful reprobates who made this venue come to life. This was one of the best things I’ve ever done in the ten years I lived in London and I loved every moment of what you created.)


Review – Beauty and the Beast – Theater Royal Stratford East

December 30, 2014

After a week with three fringe pantos, I finally headed out to a mainstream one – the Stratford panto. I was particularly enthused about it because it features Ralph Bogard, an actor I’d been following on Twitter since his star turn in the Leicester Square Theater Saucy Jack. (The year before a fellow Space Vixen had wound up in the Greenwich Panto as the heroine – proving, in my mind, what a great cast it was.)

But I was curious about what to expect. Panto is a constantly evolving art form, so while old favorites like Dick Whitttington and Aladdin are still getting plenty of stage time, theatres are also breaking in new stories – in this case, Beauty and the Beast. Per Andrew Pollard, author of the Greenwich pantos, this is in part due to the Disney effect, where fairytales they have made films of will suddenly have a new popularity with the panto-age viewing public. It was Disney’s movie that led to the first stagings of Snow White, after all, so it’s almost a tradition of its own. But even knowing you have a primed audience doesn’t tell you what you need to do to turn the source material into a show that works. Birmingham Royal Ballet nicely adapted it, but as a ballet, with the lush sets, drama and (of course) dance that a ballet audience would expect. But how to turn it into a panto? This is an interesting arena for creativity: if you read the story of Aladdin in The 1001 Nights, you may notice there is no Wishy Washy’s laundry, and similarly no Buttons in the original Cinderella. So Theater Royal Stratford East is taking on a show with only the barest whispers of tradition about it. It needs a beauty, a beast, a rose, and…. a candy factory? A dame? An evil witch? What about the selfish sisters? My panto expectations were unset, but I (and the rest of the audience) was ready to come along for the ride.

For this Beauty, the plot is as follows: Belle (Helen Aluko), her father (Minal Patel) and his sister (our dame, called, bizarrely, Giselle – Michael Bertenshaw) have washed up on the shores of Stratenford, Hingerland (get it?) without a penny to their names. They are forced to take jobs in a candy factory. Its owner, the scheming, selfish Mr Choakum (Ralph Bogard), decides that Belle is just the woman he needs to set himself up socially. This drama goes on for so long that it seems that there will never be any sort of fairy tale happening at all: there’s certainly no sign of any of the story’s original elements other than a marionette dumb show that seems completely unrooted (the cast never again appears in the guise of a family of puppeteers in any case).

Belle’s father goes to seek his lost boat and winds up in a magical palace where a rose appears along with a cast of strange creatures all under an enchantment, and we seem to finally be getting into our fairy tale. The rose is plucked, a beast appears (Vlach Ahston), the daughter offers herself in exchange for her father’s freedom, and the story is rolling. But it veers off again with a villain (required by panto tradition if not the source material): the witch who enchanted the beast (the rather glamorous Antonia Kemi Coker), who, with her daughter (Allyson Ava-Brown), wants to ensure the story has a bad ending. Are they successful? “Oh no they’re not!” is the only possible answer as panto rules are now in play; but the victory over materialism that is the triumph of the original story is transferred from the non-existent sisters to the post-transformation prince in a manner I found not satisfying.

In general, this evening has a bit of a budget feel to it. The costumes are quite simple – the dame only gets three – though with a touch of imagination (a Dia de los Muertos/Frida Kahlo look for the good guys, and a Princess Mononoke feel to the Beast). While the pop-up storybook look for the castle is charming and appropriate, it lacked a depth and attention to detail that might have made it truly enchanting. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast, which toured in London this year, was a visual feast, and more magic would have been nice for this production. The songs seemed perfunctory and lacking in emotion. And, overall, there were absolutely none of the political jokes which previous Stratford pantos have delivered so well. Did a memo go out warning that Art Council funding would be cut if any complaints were made? Panto is a wonderful way to poke fun at the powers that be, but the opportunity was entirely missed.

Fortunately, the cast was very enthusiastic and took genuine pleasure in delivering a positive experience. I was especially delighted with Mr Choakum, a sleazy amalgamation of Caractacus Potts and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, manically driven and not quite right in the head (villains are always so fun). Aluko had a lovely voice and the group of storybook characters working for the Beast – Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Piggy, and Baby Bear – added a lot of flavor to the proceedings. And who can argue with a panto driven by an urban beat? While this show needed more magic, Beauty and the Beast seems a good show to take the family and radiates a genuine London sensibility. However, the script itself seemed really unsettled and lacked the firm structure that underlies so much panto humor. I don’t think the candy factory and pasted in Auntie really make for a winning script for this fairy tale, but its twists at the end did add interest.

This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on December 10, 2014. It continues until January 17th, 2015.)

Tags – Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Helen Aluko, Minal Patel, Michael Bertenshaw, Ralph Bogard, Vlach Ahston, Antonia Kemi Coker, Allyson Ava-Brown