I am delighted to announce that the word ‘immersive’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. Paint it on your mug at work – that’s an immersive cup of tea you’re having. Grab a toothbrush and some toothpaste for an immersive dental experience. Down at Sainsburys, loaded down with the tins of beans and coconut milk you’ll be using over the course of the next week to make one of the four meals you can definitely cook – an immersive 1:1 experience with a cashier. All the world’s a stage.
Tonight’s performance of Menagerie, billed as ‘erotic storytelling’ and ‘immersive theatre’, is in the Kings Head Members Club on Kingsland Road, a four-floor private club filled with taxidermy. It has an insistent, bijou opulence that almost makes the £5.50 bottles of Estrella bearable. The performances take place in the Main Bar (the stage tucked in one corner, the booths, the bar and the taxidermied tiger taking up most of the space), the Cellar (a tiny underground night club with another stage) and the Polar Bear Bar (the largest room, almost entirely full for the evening, with a gigantic stuffed polar bear agape at the proceedings).
Menagerie is by the burlesque collective House of Kittens, and comprises a series of short performances, ranging from 3 to 16 minutes long. House of Kittens are a classic burlesque troupe: glossy, von Teese-esque stripteases are performed by talented dancers; the routines tightly choreographed and aesthetically sumptuous. There’s nothing of the rowdy, the subversive or the counter-cultural here – Menagerie is professional and polished to the point of high lacquer.
The ‘stories’ it tells are more glimpsed vignettes than genuinely narrative, of course – think costume over character. The ensemble pieces are the most enjoyable. ‘Queen of Hearts’ is a fun confection featuring three skimpily clad ballerinas in point shoes, vying for the attention of a dominatrix-esque queen; the chic ‘Fame’ features as much stylish vogueing as it does string bodysuits. A couple of smaller pieces have the capacity to surprise despite the tried and tested formulas of classic burlesque: ‘Oil Baby’ draws on the dynamic and dress of the BDSM scene, and despite its sanitised variant as a performance piece, does carry a certain amount of fetishistic darkness; the solo ‘Strange’ is a masterful piece of contortion that is genuinely eye-goggling.
But so far, so proscenium (or, in the case of the Polar Bear Bar, catwalk). Where, then, is the immersive element?
I suspect it is in the choice of venue. Audience members are encouraged to walk around the Kings Head, ‘curating’ their own evenings. It’s a little like being at a music festival – you pick the band you want to see (and sacrifice the ones you may have wanted to catch but which clash), and you turn up early enough to try and get a good place where you can see the stage. Or you wait by the bar, chance it, and wind up at the back of a staggering crowd. It is immersive in the sense that you are moving through it; as everyone is encouraged to come in Neo Noir costume, there should be a sense that even moving through it makes you a part of it.
The atmosphere at the Kings Head, however, is more like your rich friend’s house party rather than a mysterious den of erotic mystery. The stairways are a touch too narrow to accommodate everyone comfortably, leading to a lot of awkward shifting. The Polar Bear Bar performances are so popular that people have to be turned away, and my companion for the evening witnesses a man shouting at one of the serenely professional ushers that he’d paid good money to be here, he’d write an email and complain if he wasn’t let in, which stays with him in a way that even the most risqué performances don’t. I arrive just in time to discover the cloakroom is full, and so spend the evening lugging a backpack and coat around, low-level wishing a plague of frogs on everyone who bumps into me, i.e., everyone.
What you are immersed in, then, is the anxious fug of everyone else trying to have a sexy time. There’s something quite frantic and stressful about trying to have a sexy time. It’s incredibly unsexy, no matter how lavishly costumed and stunningly performed the burlesque. The people having the best time, so far as I can tell, are just there to drink and flirt with one another, and don’t much mind if they miss a show or two. Menagerie is great for fans of classic burlesque who also have a lot of chill.
For more information on House of Kittens, Click here.