Last night, we encountered Emilie Autumn and her Bloody Crumpets in the incongruous surroundings of a pub in the small British seaside town of Ilfracombe. Twenty-four hours and two hundred-odd miles later, the travelling carnival o' Crumpets has re-assembled itself in the somewhat more familiar environment of a large London rock club. And yet, there's a certain incongruity here, too, for tonight's entertainment is not your regular rock gig.
Emilie Autumn's current stage show is a two-hour theatrical extravaganza, a conceptual wing-ding that has only a tangental relationship to the normal procedures of rock 'n' roll. As a matter of fact, the show seems to be getting more tangental from tour to tour. I recall, last year, catching Emilie Autumn at the Underworld in London, and at that time there were at least a few fragments of conventional rock methodology still discernible in the proceedings, not least the fairly standard presence of two support bands. It was, basically, a gig.
But n ow, it's a show, and the difference is distinct. Emilie Autumn has taken a decisive step towards theatre. No support bands tonight - just an elaborately dressed stage, some equally elaborately dressed Bloody Crumpets, and Emilie Autumn herself, if not queen of the night then certainly the empress of the early morning. At the Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls, the party starts at four o'clock, ack emma. No need to ask your carriage to wait, because nobody gets out of here alive.
Give or take the odd ad-lib, tonight we get the same show that we saw last night in that seaside pub, but now expanded to big-stage dimensions. 'Four O'Clock' makes its bleary way through the PA. The Crumpets awake; the tea ceremony begins.
And here comes Emilie Autumn herself, exuding confidence and control, the fulcrum around which this surreal song and dance spectacular revolves.
It's interesting that she arrives upstage, and spends much of the song on the harpsichord riser at the back, allowing the Crumpets to fill the stage. Emilie might be the star, but this is definitely an ensemble show. (This is also the first time I have ever had occasion to write the words 'harpsicord riser' - verily we are a long, long way from rock 'n' roll).
Notwithstanding the harpsichord on its riser, the music, as ever, mainly emanates from a backing track, aside from the traditional interlude when Emilie grabs her violin, stations herself stage centre, and gives us the full Pagannini. But in truth, the show is the thing. The non-stop gyrations of the Crumpets are choreographed to the hilt and yet are at the same time engagingly anarchic, a constantly shifting backdrop of flounces and frills and set-pieces and stunts, through which Emilie prowls, rat tail twitching, brandishing her radio mic as if it's her staff of office.
The songs, naturally, are unrepentant collisions of nimble classicism and towering rock dynamics - 'Dead Is The New Alive' drops its chorus on the audience like a toppling building. But there are quieter moments, too, as when Emilie stations herself behind her electrical harpsichord and gives us an emotive 'Shallot' - and who but Emilie Autumn, I ask you, could write an affecting classical ballad about small onions?
Captain Maggot appears on stilts, the Crumpets line up at the microphones as if to repel boarders, and tattered banners are defiantly waved as the show becomes a crazed cross between Les Miserables and P.T. Barnum's Great Travelling Menagerie.
Down the front, the plague rats and muffins (in the world of Emilie Autumn, you're either a rodent or a bread product) greet the spectacle with wide eyes and cheers, and if there's a scattering of unreconstructed rock-heads further back wearing disgruntled expressions because nobody's playing a guitar - well, nobody in the Asylum is worried about that.
Occasionally, tour fatigue makes its presence known. Long hours on the road and longer hours setting up and delivering each night's entertainment take a toll. 'We're conducting an experiment,' remarks Emilie at one point, 'to see how long it takes before a crumpet starts to smell.' Odd little glitches sometimes occur in the flow of the show: a stumbled line, a missed cue. After a slightly fluffed exchange with the Contessa - along with the good Cap'n, a new crumpet for this tour - Emilie laughingly admits, 'Maybe we should rehearse this stuff before we do it live!'
Here, perhaps, we come up against the slightly awkward transition between this theatrical performance - choreographed, structured, scripted - with the wing-it-and-to-hell-with-it approach of rock 'n' roll. Maybe the next stage of development should be to take the Asylum out of rock venues altogether, and put it into the theatres, much as, say, the Tiger Lillies do. Here in London, I'm sure Emilie Autumn could sell out off-West End playhouses such as the Bloomsbury Theatre in an instant, and while these art houses might be a little short of gilded plasterwork, velvet drapes and other extravagances of Victorian decor, they'd nevertheless represent a logical next step for an artist who is leaving the conventions of the rock gig further behind her with every tour.
Certainly, what we've seen tonight has been a geniuinely inventive burst of musical theatre: now, surely, it's time to put it in the theatre. The Asylum beneath the proscenium? I'll raise a cup of tea to that.