views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Hotel Black Cat
Spiegeltent - London Wonderground, Southbank
17th June 2016


Katharine Arnold and Nathan & Isis

Photography © Jason Moon

If singing is enough to earn you your supper, what does it take to get a hotel room, housekeeping, well-stocked bar and room service? Well, at Hotel Black Cat, if you're a penniless performing artist with nowhere else to go, it takes very little other than turning up and knocking on the door. This is less a profitable business model and more a failing charity, with slightly stressed manager (Dusty Limits) trying desperately secure the future of his beloved Hotel Black Cat with the help of two mysterious investors (Nathan & Isis). However with the artists doubling up as hotel staff and their talents in showbiz rather than hospitality, it's all a bit cabaret meets Fawlty Towers.

The concept allows a wide variety of acts to feasibly be a part of the same performance, with a loose narrative thread linking everything together. Limits' faux exasperation, natural snark and excellent singing voice make him an ideal host. Hotel Black Cat demands a strong MC with Limits meeting the challenge. Behind every great man there is a great woman and indeed, as much as the manager would like to think he's in charge of the hotel, Laura Corcoran (better known as Frisky of Frisky & Mannish) directs the evening from behind the scenes, ensuring the transition from one act to the next is paced well.

Background music is subtly provided throughout by accomplished string quartet Bowjangles. They also take their turn in the spotlight, with Ezme Gaze, Bertie Anderson, Ed Bruggemeyer and Mitch McGugan trotting out some of their very best tried and tested material. If you haven't seen them in action before, you'll be amazed by how they manage to move about on stage whilst singing and playing string instruments. They're fun, energetic and have a wicked sense of humour. Gaze in particular has her work cut out for her, darting about with an unwieldy and heavy cello.

Whilst there is nothing about Bowjangles' performance that can be faulted and it's always a pleasure to be in the same room as such phenomenally gifted people, I would love to see something new from them. I first saw this same material two years ago - it ages remarkably well and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it in person again, but that's not the point. As much as I think the Jeremy Kyle Orchestra is a superbly timed piece of musical comedy, the mere fact that I have my own nickname for the sketch and could probably sing along word for word does demonstrate the group have got a little comfortable.

Although dance troupe Cabaret Rouge may not have left a lasting impression on us last year when featuring in Nocturne, since checking into Hotel Black Cat, we can't help but notice them. Having knocked back all the venue's liquor, their dance moves can be neatly summed up as "when ballerinas go bad". They stumble, fumble and fall over with makeup smeared faces and beguiling chuckles, yet do all this with a certain grace and agility. Their pointe work is striking and the dark aspect to their performance is what makes it so fascinating and playful.

Keeping up a theme, the housekeeper (Katharine Arnold) is also a former dancer with a drink problem. Arnold takes part in some show-stopping acrobatics with Nathan & Isis, with the characters' power struggle told through a mightily impressive piece of acrobatics. As much as Nathan tries to cut out Arnold out of the act, she and Isis are repeatedly drawn to each other, with Nathan having little choice other than to let Arnold join in, or walk away himself.

The ensemble

Photography © Jason Moon

At one point Isis calmly and discreetly repositions herself before completing a tricky acrobatic move, but that's the closest any of the trio come to making a mistake. They are always completely in control of their balance, with Nathan deliberately make the women hurtle close to the ground, always catching them at the right moment and yet making us repeatedly hold our breath. We're gripped by the trio's work, awestruck and fascinated, confident that everything to follow will be spot on.

Arnold also engages in some aerial acrobatics, demonstrating a huge amount of flexibility, imagination and skill. Given twirling around in a hoop isn't something you see every day, plenty of lesser performers have come to the Spiegeltent before and relied on the grandeur of a cerceau or the beauty and shock value of naked flesh to impress an audience. Arnold is technically adept, with her dazzling outfit adding to the impact of her work rather than distracting from it. She doesn't need cheap tricks, she's an exceptional performer.

Whilst Arnold, together with Nathan & Isis, is one of the clear highlights of the evening, the innocuous bell boy (Florian Brooks) also manages to stand out. Being a professional juggler involves skill and personality, with personality often coming to the rescue following a drop. I don't mind the odd miss when the recovery is quick, smooth and full of underdog charm, however Brooks astonished me with some flawless and technically challenging juggling. Despite throwing around items of different shapes, sizes and weights, not once did he drop anything. His character in this show is unassuming and this makes the impact of his delivery even more mind-blowing. He's not 'just the bell boy', he's a natural born star.

The caretaker (Dimitri Hatton) is also unappreciated by the manager, but given how his chaotic, panicky approach to looking after the hotel contrasts with the bell boy's calmer and more unobtrusive manner, you can almost sympathise. Hatton's style of comedy is very much typical clowning, playing around with ladders and making the audience laugh.

One of the dinner guests (Chrisalys) may have a pig's snout, but seems in no danger of getting to pig out on a fine meal anytime soon. Plenty of other dangers await Chrisalys though, with fire-eating and pesky mouse traps. The flames are impressive (you can really feel the heat from the front rows). Some of his act though is about pain and torture and may be uncomfortable viewing for some.

From grotesque to gorgeous, Vicky Butterfly makes a truly mesmerising appearance as the lady of the house, her this cloak transforming into a blur of bright lights, colours and movement as she twirls and gyrates hypnotically. Although this is a burlesque act that leaves little to the imagination, it's both stunning and beautiful. Although I'm sure there were plenty entranced by her physical beauty, this felt like nudity for art's sake. Spellbinding stuff.

Despite a horrendously late press night (it kicked off even later than Black Cat Cabaret's show the previous year), it's impossible not to give Hotel Black Cat five stars. This is cabaret at its finest and I defy anyone to see this show and not have a fantastic time.

Hotel Black Cat opened on 3rd June and runs until 26th August 2016 at the London Wonderground (Fridays only).

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Northern, Bakerloo, Jubilee)

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