THE EVENT OF THE YEAR! shouts the local music magazine. EMILY AUTUMN IN ILFRACOMBE! This enthusiastic big-up would be slightly more convincing if they'd managed to spell Emilie Autumn's name right, but hey, you can't fault the sentiment.
It's not like Emilie Autumn has hit Enormodome status just yet, but she and her interestingly frocked song and dance troupe have certainly notched up a fair bit of success with their travelling carnival of surrealist drawing-room charades. These days, Emilie Autumn's live shows tend to home in on relatively major venues in relatively major cities. She's a cult star among the eyeliner-encrusted weird-glam brigade, and she's got the tour schedules to prove it.
All of which means that tonight's gig is something out of the ordinary. An Emilie Autumn show in the upstairs room of a pub, in a small British seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Devon in the doldrums of the off-season? Yes, that's certainly something to shout about not to mention being quite a surrealist prospect in itself.
But sure enough, here's the tour bus, almost bigger than the venue, precariously parked in a steeply sloping side street alongside The Marlboro, Ilfracombe's very own rock pub. Upstairs, we find the function room stage has been transformed into a riot in a haberdashery shop. It's all stripes and trinkets, cobwebs and nick-nacks a remarkable contrast, it's fair to say, with the pub's own scuffed seventies décor, a veritable rave in beige. You certainly know when Emilie Autum is in town. Her style goes before her, and the world is warped to her own specifications.
I suspect that the Emilie Autumn fanbase in Ilfracombe itself numbers somewhere between a mere few and not many, but nevertheless an audience has gathered from all points south and west: wide-eyed glam girls and top-hatted goths, twenty-first century steampunks and curious rockers. Not, I would hazard, the usual crowd at this venue, which usually plays host to local metal acts and covers bands. But tonight is different in all sorts of ways. Let the revels commence!
Like a collection of Miss Havishams on a spree, Emilie Autumn's supporting cast, the Bloody Crumpets, take the stage in a flurry of distressed petticoats. All of a sudden, we are in a parallel universe, where you always find yourself awake, wide-eyed in the darkness, at four o'clock in the morning that bleak hour when the abyss seems to yawn hungrily before you and it seems like the sun will never rise. What better time time for tea and dancing?
Emilie herself, an elegant queen rat with a splendid tail to prove it, stalks among the Crumpets as they pirouette to the strains of 'Four O'Clock' - the nearest thing Emilie Autumn has to a theme song. The show is off and away, a choreographed riot in a Fortnum & Mason's window display, all tea and cakes and corsetry. The spectacle pulls us in, and it's as if the prosaic surroundings of this scruffy Devon boozer abruptly vanish as the gates of the Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls clang shut behind us.
For those who've just joined the party, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to point out that Emilie Autumn is not a band. Her stage show is entirely bereft of hairy-arsed blokes playing guitars, and other suchlike signifiers of ye olde rock 'n' roll. Instead, we get a theatrical performance that mixes music and mime, vaudeville and vogueing, with Emilie as the narrator, mistress of ceremonies, and the eye of the elegantly befrocked storm. What music there is exists largely on the backing track, as just one element of the multi-faceted show. It's a paradox, given that Emilie has made her name as a musician, that music itself plays such a subordinate role to the visuals and the action on stage.
But that doesn't stop her from hollering through a rampaging version of 'Liar' with such vitriol that you can imagine, every time she rips out the L-word, that somewhere, someone who's been insufficiently truthful, dies a horrible death. 'Misery Loves Company' is an incongruous romp, the cheery lilt of the melody rubbing up against the baleful cynicism of the lyrics.
This is the bizarre attraction of Emilie Autumn: with a smile and a song and a disarmingly raised eyebrow, she can make the heart of darkness seem like a fun place to be. The Asylum might be a bleak, rat-infested old pile, but when the four o'clock festivities are in full effect, it's impossible not to want to carouse along with the Crumpets.
There is, of course, the customary fiddle-shredding interlude - the violin solo in which Emilie demonstrates her prowess at scraping horse's hair over cat's guts really, really fast. The audience greets this display with huge cheers, but I remain unmoved. I thought we'd trounced this kind of muso-indulgence in the punk wars. If there was some sort of context - if she did it in the middle of a song - maybe I'd dig this shredathon, but not as a purely gratuitous showcase. Anyway, isn't it the height of bad manners for Victorian girls to show off?
I'm more impressed with the impeccably choreographed lunacy of the Bloody Crumpets, who dance and fight and scoff biscuits with just the right combination of composure and anarchy. In particular, the sudden appearance of the puckish, piratical, Captain Maggot on a pair of stilts is an unexpected delight, not least because the ceiling is so low she has to bend double to get into the room. It's impressive how Emilie and her Crumpets are giving us the full show tonight. The venue may be small, and a certain amount of squashing-up has obviously been necessary. But nothing has been cut out.
Emilie lectures us sternly on certain thefts of costumes and props that have taken place during the tour (Apparently, Suffer, the bear, has vanished and been replaced three times now; fortunately, he has several brothers) and asks for suggestions as to how the thieves should be dealt with (disembowelling seems to be the popular option).
Then it's into 'Bohemian Rhapsody', a song so gloriously over the top in its collision of mentalist orchestrations and rampant rockisms that it could've been written with Emilie Autumn in mind. The show hurtles to a finish, and eventually winds up with a lunatic singalong of Monty Python's 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life', with sundry Crumpets bounding around the place like sub-atomic particles cut loose from the nucleus. And I'm standing there, amid the frocks and the freak-outs, surrounded by teapots and rats and cookies and clocks that all seem to have stopped at four, thinking to myself that now I really have seen everything.
And then, it's over. Reality creeps nervously back into the room. Emilie and the Crumpets stay behind to meet the fans, but I'm in search of the traditional post-gig bag of chips and a bed for the night.
Outside, the tour bus looms like a big black island in the rain. The streets of Ilfracombe look incongruously normal in this wet night, but as I walk away I turn and look back at the venue - and maybe, just for a moment, the pub sign shimmers and flickers. It's hard to tell in the slanting rain, but I could almost swear that for an instant it spells out The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls.