Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Friday September 13 2013
The biggest show yet for Emilie
Autumn, and a rare
opportunity to view her revue in a theatre venue, as opposed to a rock
club of one sort or another.
Having said that, tonight's performance is not quite the full-on West End theatrical spectacular we were promised at Emilie's previous London gig. That one is still to come.
Still, the Shepherd's Bush Empire is an old vaudeville theatre re-purposed for rock 'n' roll (not such a great change, some might say). Emilie's much-vaunted leap from the rock gig circuit into theatreland might not have quite happened yet - but she's definitely heading in that direction.
This, of course, makes it all the more baffling that Emilie Autumn is still being marketed as a rock act by her industry partners, who seem to be labouring under the impression that she's a heavy metal band - like Alice Cooper, or something. So, maybe there's a way to go yet. But tonight we can at least get a hint of how Emilie's extravaganza looks in a theatrical setting, while the venue's tiered seating and decent sightlines means that even the smallest muffins in the audience have a chance of clapping their mince pies on the show.
here comes a
paradox. As Emilie's venues get bigger, the cast gets smaller.
The Bloody Crumpets, the troupe of elaborately corseted fellow-conspirators who appear on stage alongside Emilie, has dwindled to a mere two this time round: Veronica Varlow, in her extravagantly minimal burlesque outfit, and the puckish pirate Captain Maggot.
In the absence of the full cast, both Veronica and the good Cap'n have significantly more work to do tonight, helping Emilie roll the plot, such as it is, forward.
It's interesting to note that Maggot, who is usually a randomly mischievous element, pinging around the stage as if powered by Brownian motion, now has a far more structured role - including plenty of dialogue, which is a surprise in itself. I don't think I've heard the Captain utter more than a handful of intelligible words before now. It's a bit like discovering the Marx Brothers had unexpectedly given a speaking role to Harpo.
But, of course, the real star of the show is Emilie
Autumn herself, a warrior queen in a towering mohawk headdress. Here
she comes: punching the air and encouraging us all to 'Fight Like A Girl',
her vocal scaling the heights over the thundering techno-classical mash-up
of the music. It's a rousing call to arms that gets the audience feeling
from the off, but in short order the show takes a sudden swerve into the
heart of darkness.
During the minimalist bleakness of 'What will I remember?' the Crumpets turn against Emilie. Maggot snatches her headdress, and Emilie suddenly appears vulnerable, defeated, a warrior queen no more.
The Crumpets run off with their booty, and Emilie is suddenly alone with her demons as the sepulchral bass-rumble of 'Take The Pill' fills the venue.
It's an odd episode in a way. In the story of the Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls (selected highlights of which essentially form the show), the Crumpets are supposed to be on Emilie's side as they battle against authority in their grim prison. But in the absence of a full cast, Emilie's plight has to be represented by this shifting role-play.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. The narrative is interrupted by a light-hearted segment in which an unusually sensible and unexpectedly articulate Captain Maggot performs the introductions, Veronica performs her set-piece burlesque routine, and some alleged erotic fan fiction is read out to much ribald laughter.
It's a breaking of the
fourth wall, interestingly akin to a between-scenes front-of-the-curtain
routine in a traditional British pantomime. I wonder, as the Crumpets
bicker and banter, if Emile has ever attended a pantomine. Her own show,
by accident or design, seems to have an uncannily similar structure.
There's even a bit of audience participation in the form of the rat game, in which a willing but bashful girl is hauled from the crowd and given a big Veronica kiss. Which isn't something that tends to happen in a traditional British pantomime, I hasten to add. We're more about the custard pies.
'Girls, Girls, Girls', a rollicking music hall knees-up in which the rhymes just don't stop coming, kicks up the tempo of the show. It's not a million miles from the kind of tunes that no doubt resounded from the rafters of the Shepherd's Bush Empire in its music hall heyday. But, as with much of Emilie Autumn's stuff, there's an undertow of darkness, for the song is the cry of a carnival barker bringing in the crowds to see the mad girls of the asylum.
The darkness descends like a pile of bricks for
the melodrama of 'Scavenger', as Emilie writhes in the grip of
her own nightmares, the stage all but blacked out and the bass bins rumbling
like a sludge-rock avalanche.
The show claws its way out of the depths with a wistful 'Gaslight', on which Veronica plays harpsichord - which is to say, she stands behind the artfully arranged pile of drapes upstage-right which might conceal a keyboard, but equally might be a pile of cardboard boxes, and the tinkle of a harpsichord is heard through the PA.
Whether there is any connection between these two events is a moot point. At any rate, this is the only moment when anyone on stage makes even a vague show of playing music, which otherwise booms from the PA like a ghostly orchestra.
Even Emilie's violin-shredding interlude
has now been
dropped. The show
is now so lengthy, there's
so much new material to fit in, that something obviously had to give. But
it's ironic that Emilie, who is still routinely billed as a virtuosa musician,
now doesn't touch an instrument from overture to finale in her own show.
The panto reaches a climax with the stompy, positive, you-can-do-it anthem 'One Foot In Front of The Other' and a bittersweet 'Goodnight, Sweet Ladies', and that is about our lot - although there's still time for Emilie to thank the audience, bombard them with cupcakes, and have a stuffed rat and bra thrown back at her in return.
The Emilie Autum Asylum Extravaganza works pretty well scaled up to full theatre size, although as ever it's necessary to know the back story in order to make sense of the onstage goings-on. If the show really is going into the West End eventually, I think it will need a tightly-written script that tells the entire tale, and a cast large enough to contain all the good guys and bad guys that appear in it.
A minimal cast of Crumpets who merely represent the goodies and baddies as necessary will frankly look a bit will-this-do in the West End.
Emilie Autumn's journey from neo-classical avant-rock performer to the star of her own musical has been a colourful ride so far, but it's been an organic development spread over six years or more. Moving up into the theatre proper is going to be a real step-change.
But you know what they say. One foot in front of the other, and all that...
For more photos from this gig, find Emilie Autumn by name here.
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