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The latest variety show from this London institution takes us back to back to old school Hollywood.

Review: THE BLACK CAT CABARET PRESENTS HALCYON NIGHTS, Crazy Coqs Few people looking back at this season of scorching heatwaves, political upheaval and financial crisis would label it "halcyon" but, in a small room under Piccadilly Circus, an idyll of music and cabaret can be found thanks to this welcome slice of old school Hollywood pizzazz.

The stylish Crazy Coqs is located in the ever-hectic West End, mere feet and an entire epoch away from Piccadilly Circus and its maddening crowds. It is here that the Black Cat Cabaret crew have taken residence with another soul-stirring show, Halcyon Nights.

When it comes to putting on high quality variety shows around the capital, Black Cat Cabaret has a record longer than an orangutan's arm. Whether it is at the Royal Albert Hall, a Spiegeltent, the iconic Café de Paris or within a luxury hotel, this London institution sets a high bar in its art form.

Helmed by Laura Corcoran (show director known for being one half of musical duo Frisky & Mannish) and Dave O'Brien (musical director), the latest outing Halcyon Nights slides us away from the dusty streets above into a hazy evening of early-mid-20th century America. A trio of piano, drums and double bass by the name of Wandering Soul expertly provide a jazz-laden soundscape to set the tone and occasionally interact with the MC Catherine The Great. The latter introduces three acts, only one of which looks truly at home here.

Sounding and appearing like a young Nina Simone, Coryna is a revelation. Crazy Coqs is arguably London's finest haven of songbook cabaret and so has seen more than its fair share of exemplary vocalists in its time. This singer deserves her spot alongside them with her evocative renditions of songs like the George and Ira Gershwin 1930 number "But Not For Me" (famously sung by Judy Garland) and "I Surrender Dear", the jazz standard which launched Bing Crosby's career in 1931.

The L'Sheila Sisters bill themselves as "London's Identical Twin Duo" but you don't need more than one glance at the pairing of a tall brunette and her shorter blonde companion to know we're not looking at both siblings. Happily, Lois Roberts has stepped in as one twin is unavailable and the two blow up a storm with some sassy and sensual tap dancing and theatrical antics. They work well together but the small stage and irregular floor space seems to inhibit the finer pieces.

Going under the hacky moniker of Johnny Go Faster, circus artiste Yann Leblanc's two turns couldn't be more different. Looking for all the world like a Fifties' greaser (dark sideburns: check, aviator sunglasses, white vest and leather jacket: check, charismatic hip-swinging swagger: checkity-check-check), he starts off with a handstand on a wooden chair. Soon, things are looking up - at least for the audience - as Leblanc adds further chairs to a create a tower and ascends them to perform another handstand. It's a standard circus routine but he shows great technique and audience interaction to build up to a rousing finale. His second turn, in which he clowns around as an artist chopping up food as he pretends to paint an audience member is jolly but sorely lacks focus and could do with an arc that invites more than befuddlement.

Holding this classy shebang together is Joanne Woodward's Catherine The Great. Or, as the evening goes on, not so great. Her expressive singing on numbers like Dusty Springfield's gender-flipped version of "Spooky" is flawless. Perhaps unsurprising given her work in musical theatre and burlesque, her stage presence is both charming and luminous. She struggles, though, as a compère to engage with the punters.

She isn't helped by dialogue which may have been racy in the Jazz Age but comes across here as more than a tad corny (example: "I don't always call him Johnny Go Faster. Sometimes I call him Johnny Go Slower. She knows what I mean.") and, when bantering, has little of this crepuscular art form's signature dark guile . We do have some sympathy as the evening's audience admittedly started out seemingly stiffer than last week's loaf - something probably not helped by the warm weather - but that isn't particularly unusual in this joint.

Cabaret works best without limits and the way it can effortlessly evoke different times and places with minimal set and stage effects is one of its defining features. Corcoran (who is also directing Wonderville which opens this week) and O'Brien's period piece hits all the right notes musically but, even under its vague premise, the many splendid parts of this show don't satisfactorily coalesce into a seamless whole and the pacing noticeably lags after the interval. Having said that, while Halcyon Nights isn't the Black Cat's finest hour, it is definitely a more-than-fine hour-plus of memorable entertainment.

Black Cat Presents Halcyon Nights continues at Crazy Coqs until 21 August.

Photo Credit: Black Cat Cabaret

From This Author - Franco Milazzo

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