When I told a fellow producer of spiegeltent-based cabaret-variety shows that I would be bringing La Clique back to the West End, she sounded a note of caution. Apparently not everyone in the British theatre world would give us the warm welcome you might expect for an Olivier-winning show, which launched an entire genre and has been seen by more than one million people.
She cited the difficulty – no matter the scale of the show – in attracting major critical reviews. There appears to be a preconception among traditional theatre specialists that if you see one spiegeltent variety show, you’ve seen them all.
The stock response from national newspapers is: ‘It just doesn’t feel very [insert publication].’ When challenged on what exactly that means, others within the industry have confided their squeamishness at the inherent queerness of our genre.
There are exceptions and the unfair treatment of spiegeltent variety shows is far from confined to the media. The temporary nature of the venues makes full membership of the marketing powerhouse the Society of London Theatre more complex for spiegeltent impresarios, while the difficulty of defining the genre creates issues for even the most sophisticated PR, marketing and ticketing operations.
Trying to fit the round peg of cabaret-variety into the square hole of mainstream theatre forces creative compromise. One of the more successful shows we directly inspired, La Soiree, wasn’t the same after transferring to the ‘bricks and mortar’ Aldwych Theatre in 2017.
This marginalisation can work for us creatively. A common theme running through our genre is a shared sense of being ‘other’ – or at least a bit alternative – symbolised by the range of otherworldly, non-traditional talents on display.
This powerful, emotional undercurrent is just one element of our art form that makes a mockery of the idea that all cabaret variety is the same. The writing, staging, structure, choreography, music and visual design of our shows all must deliver a coherent artistic vision, which can contain the breadth of performances on display. To achieve this is, conclusively, art.
Trying to fit the round peg of cabaret-variety into the square hole of mainstream theatre forces creative compromise
Commercially there are success stories too. Our Leicester Square spiegeltent run could increase the audience figure quoted above by another 30,000. During their tenures at Underbelly Festival Southbank and Christmas in Leicester Square, Briefs attracted London audiences of nearly 100,000. Little Death Club (co-conceived by our brilliant emcee Bernie Dieter) was one of the critical and commercial successes of the past two Edinburgh Fringes, which sandwiched a 12-week London run. In Vegas, Spiegelworld is attracting annual audiences of nearly one million to its three shows.
At times, however, producers of this mighty and ever-growing art form feel their work counts for very little in the eyes of the country’s theatrical elites. It’s time they showed us more respect.
David Bates is owner and producer of the Famous Spiegeltent. La Clique runs at Leicester Square Spiegeltent until January 4