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Review: LA CLIQUE, Underbelly Festival, London

The high-octane blend of circus and cabaret returns to London for a summer run.

Review: LA CLIQUE, Underbelly Festival, London

Review: LA CLIQUE, Underbelly Festival, London Due to its intrinsically adult nature, cabaret as an art form is a revolution that cannot be televised. And nor should it be - like some other grown up activities, it is best experienced in the flesh, preferably in company and in dark, intimate surroundings. Whether you are an ardent cabaret fan or merely curious, seeing La Clique (presented here as part of the Underbelly Festival in central London) is a must-see if only for the experience of sitting in a Spiegeltent and witnessing the sheer quality of talent that pours out onto its stage.

La Clique isn't a bashful show by any stretch of the imagination with plenty of male and female flesh on display throughout. That's apparent from the off when Italian burlesquer Jolie Papillion steps onto the stage. The London-based showgirl, known both for her solo work and her East End shows as part of the Gin House Burlesque supergroup, has moves for days and her opening number - a scintillating peacock-themed fan dance - sets the tone perfectly for what is to come.

Prepare to crane your neck because much of this oneiric show is far from grounded. Having aerial specialist Katharine Arnold on the cast list is a surefire guarantee of a good time and here she provides two typically gobsmacking turns. After a skillful rope routine, she returns for a sensational example of theatrical cabaret which plays off the idea of "a perfect body...a perfect soul". Mikael Bres somehow manages to charm the hell out of the audience while simultaneously executing a breathtaking Chinese pole routine with speed, sass and confidence. The aerial straps are LJ Marles's preferred mode of elevation; the Hackney-born acrobat has been performing since he was a teenager and his transcendent style and resplendent costume wins loud applause.

This wouldn't be a circus without clowns but those expecting long shoes and red noses should look for their kicks elsewhere. Instead, La Clique's Sam Goodburn and J'aiMime provide two exciting examples of modern clowning that is most definitely not available for children's parties. West's young looks belie an impressive ability and a playful sadism; his cheeky reverse-burlesque while aboard a unicycle is utterly marvellous to behold. J'aiMime's first act begins as a gender-swapped version of Tape Face's famous solo dance routine before she adds her own flourishes and eventually takes it in a much saucier direction. She returns later with an impressively physical act that she describes as "balloon eats awkward blonde girl" which sees her being subsumed into a huge latex bubble.

Those stepping into the Spiegeltent's intimate setting should know that money only buys a kinky form of happiness here: those in the front row will have to balance the merits of having the best view with the potential to be verbally or physically assailed by performers whose only boundaries are their imagination and health and safety regulations. LJ Marles, donning a lacy bodysuit and thigh-high PVC boot, floats like a butterfly above the audience on his tension straps before Papillon's second routine sees her climb into a very soapy bath, the contents of which she is only too happy to share with the front row. Other audience members are spun around at high speed by headline act The Skating Willers III or made to jump for a biscuit by Goodburn.

If you've never seen The Skating Willers III, you're in for a treat. Their terrifying display of super-fast spinning on a small circular platform is pure Vegas (and yet another reason not to sit in the front row). The act hasn't changed much since they took over The Skating Willers II, a pairing that came with a unique backstory. By the time they retired in 2015, Wanda and Jean-Pierre Poisonnett had performed as a married couple for decades and continued even after their divorce. Wanda trusted her ex-husband implicitly telling a reporter in 2007, "I put my life in his hands every single show we do." And that's no mean thing considering what can happen onstage. As Jean-Pierre put it, "I've broken her ankle, four ribs, dislocated her shoulder twice and put her head into the lights one time, but apart from that, nothing."

This not a perfect show: American chanteuse Ashley Stroud mumbles her way through songs whose lyrics are almost impossible to understand while the show would benefit from a compère whose contributions stretch beyond urging people to use the bar and occasionally announcing a performer (come back Reuben Kaye, all is forgiven). Having said that, this is a very good and highly entertaining exemplar of cabaret, an art form which, a century on from its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, is just the ticket for the current climate.

La Clique continues at the Underbelly Festival until 3 July.

Image: Craig Sugden

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