02 Academy, Bournemouth
Friday March 5 2010
Lurking in slightly frayed Victorian magnificence amid mobile phone shops and fast-food outlets, our venue for tonight's show still manages to exude a certain air of an elegant bygone age. The Bournemouth 02 Academy may now trade under a prosaic, corporate-chain, word-from-our-sponsor name, but this, ladies and gentlemen, was once the Grand Pavillion Theatre.
The ruthless transformation of the Grand Pavillion Theatre into a consumer-branded corporate rock joint has not, fortunately, diminished the riot of theatrical Victoriana that greets the visitor once inside. The proscenium arch soars magnificently; a veritable forest of ornate cast iron columns support galleries where once elegant theatre-goers paraded in their finery.
It's a far more appropriate venue for Emilie Autumn than the workaday rock clubs into which her tours are usually booked. Her show – part pantomime, semi-circus, a surreal vaudeville that owes little to the normal nuts and bolts of rock 'n' roll - fits far more neatly into a theatrical setting than the spit and sawdust venues of the routine rock circuit.
You probably couldn't tell this to Emilie's industry partners, mind. As she moves ever-deeper into theatre, Emilie Autumn continues to be - bizarrely - sold as a rock act. She's now signed to The End Records, home of such strange bedfellows as Danzig, The 69 Eyes, and Mindless Self Indulgence. The label's master plan seems to be to shunt Emilie into the Rawk zone in the hope that the kidz will snap her up without noticing that for all her shredding skills on the electric fiddle, she's not actually a hairy-arsed heavy metal band that goes 'Huuuurrrgghh!'.
My own guess is that Emilie Autumn would find her natural audience and greatest success with the avant-theatre crowd to which the Tiger Lillies play. But her label, evidently, has other plans.
Emilie's move to a rock label has been accompanied by a sudden surge of features in mainstream metal mags, and this latest, incongrouous, tour of British rock 'n' roll holes.
And yet, in spite of all the music biz machinations, tonight's audience is a select gathering of muffins - as Emilie Autumn fans are endearingly known - rather than the large all-purpose rock crowd the sales campaign was presumably supposed to entice. I'm afraid the headbangers have not come to the ball. You hear that muffled thud in the background? That's the marketing strategy of The End Records falling flat on its face.
One thing is for sure. If anyone's come along tonight on the strength of the recent Emilie Autumn features in Kerrrang!, they're in for a shock. Why, there are no guitars on stage. No drums, no Marshall stacks. No band.
What there is, in colourful abundance, is theatre.
Act one, scene one: the Asylum. It's four o'clock in the morning. Bloody Crumpets brandish tea bags. Now there's a statement that'll sound utterly surreal to anyone who is not wise to the ways of Emilie Autumn, but it's no more than the truth.
The premise of the show is that it's 1840 or thereabouts. Emilie and friends, the Contessa, Aprella, Veronica, and the rascally, impish Captain Maggot (collectively the Bloody Crumpets: baked goods feature heavily in Asylum argot) are incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where, in the bleak early hours, they entertain themselves with tea and charades. As a concept, that requires a certain suspension of disbelief - although maybe not as much as you'd think, for Emilie Autumn's own spell in a mental institution forms the back story to the on-stage antics. Even at its most fantastical, the show has an undertow of grim reality.
The revels commence in a flurry of petticoats. Crumpets swirl and strut in a choreographed gavotte. Emilie herself appears, masked and rat-tailed, the mistress of ceremonies. She's glammed to the nines and unfailingly good-humoured, but you know she's the boss. The music - mostly on a backing track in the absence of a band - is all swooping strings and chiming harpsichord, punctuated and underpinned by machine-gun beats. The combination - no, collision - of styles actually works rather well in this context, as the sound rolls out into the impeccable Victoran theatre acoustics.
If the songs have an overarching theme, it's that of Emilie nailing her here-I-stand-I-can-do-no-other colours to the mast. 'The Art Of Suicide' is an affecting sway and lilt, as the Crumpets shadow Emilie's movements with flowers and moons on sticks. They have their spotlight moments, too. Veronica burlesques it up in feathers. Aprella brandishes a pistol. Captain Maggot unfailingly, brilliantly, acts the goat.
As the pulse of '306' rumbles out, the Contessa cavorts on high, in a swathe of pink fabric hanging from the flies - a piece of pure circus, and genuinely impressive, especially as it's incorporated seamlessly into the flow of the show. Not that there's any kind of linear narrative. We're simply in the Asylum, in the moment. Go with it: the Crumpets' tea party is a fun place to be.
As if to underline how far we are from the usual conventions of a gig, lengthy sections of the performance are given over to set-piece dialogues, in which the audience is often included. Emilie has no truck with the idea of the fourth wall; we're all in the Asylum. Veronica's prowess with the feathers doesn't spare her from a scolding when Emilie discovers she's been copping off with other Crumpets instead of her.
Then there's the Rat Game, where the call goes out for a muffin ('Who has never kissed a girl before!') to get on stage and do just that. The unstated subtext, here and throughout the show, is that the Crumpets have arrived on the other bus - a plot element that's either deliciously subversive or gratuitously licentious, depending on which bus you arrived on, I suppose. Personally, I'd bet that Emilie is loading the show with girl-on-girl action just because she likes it.
Then there's the interlude when Emilie comes over all serious, steps up to the lip of the stage, and instructs us, suddenly schoolmistress-ish, that 'An asylum is a sanctuary.' She repeats the point several times. In here, she says, all is freedom and tolerance. 'We don't care what you look like,' says Emilie. 'We don't care whom you fuck.' I'm sure she says whom - in that moment, she's almost genuinely Victorian in her formality.
The gist of the lecture is that we are all different, and being different is a good thing to be. I'm waiting, rather irreverently, for someone in the crowd to remark, 'I'm not', quoting the line from Monty Python's Life Of Brian, but perhaps fortunately 'Dead Is The New Alive' crashes in at the crucial moment. It's the big showstopper, a hurtling riot of sound, the nearest we get all night to that dreaded rock music. Captain Maggot gleefully twirls a flaming hoop as Emilie calls down the forces of rock 'n' roll in a bravura vocal performance that has the cast iron columns of this old theatre ringing.
I suppose that proves Emilie Autumn can take rock music or leave it alone. She uses it, but she's not defined by it. Maybe somebody needs to get alongside her record label and tell 'em. While they've been busily barking Emilie Autumn up the wrong tree, she's become the star of her own glamourous, glitter-strewn Grand Guignol.
And here's the best bit: she didn't ask anyone in the marketing department for permission.
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